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#1920Club – launching the week with the genesis of a great detective #poirot #agathachristie

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And here we go, launching the #1920club – a week where we read, enjoy and share our love of books from a year from the 20th century. This time we’ve chosen something special – a date that fell 100 years ago and yielded a wide and interesting range of books – 1920!

As is so often the case, I’m choosing to kick off the week with one of my most beloved authors – the wonderful Agatha Christie! As I’ve mentioned before, I read her books first in my teens and I’ve loved and collected them since. She was an astonishingly prolific writer, and 1920 is a special year in the Agatha Christie world; because it saw the publication of her first novel, and the debut of her iconic detective Hercule Poirot. The novel is “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” and though I’ve read it many times, I relished a revisit!

Agatha Christie Mysterious Affair at Styles 1920club tea flowers golden age crime

It’s well-known that Christie worked in Torquay’s hospital as a dispenser of medication during the First World War, and it was here she conceived her first crime novel. Poirot was apparently inspired by her encounters with Belgian refugees during her work, and it’s clear she drew from some elements of her life in the book. The story is narrated by Arthur Hastings, making his first appearance as Poirot’s somewhat hapless sidekick; on sick leave from the war, he travels down to Styles Court in Essex to stay with an old friend, John Cavendish. Styles is not a happy place at the moment; John’s wealthy stepmother Mrs. Inglethorp has married a man the family dislike intensely; John’s marriage is rocky and rumours abound; and Mrs. Inglethorp has just had a major quarrel with her loyal companion, Evelyn Howard. Also staying at the house are John’s brother Lawrence, and orphan Cynthia Murdoch, an informal ward of Mrs. Inglethorp. Emotions are obviously near the surface and not long after Hastings’ arrival Mrs. Inglethorp is poisoned in the night, but in a room which is apparently locked from the inside. Evidence points to her husband, although he may have an alibi; and it seems that several other characters may have perfectly good motives for the murder.

Poirot was an extraordinary-looking little man. He was hardly more than 5’4”, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little to one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.

Fortunately for all, Hastings has bumped into an old friend who happens to be living locally: one Hercule Poirot, a refugee from Belgium who has escaped and is settling in England with the help of Mrs. Inglethorp (who seems to have been aiding a number of Poirot’s fellow countrymen). Described as having been “one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police”, he’s ideally placed to investigate and fortunately the police will not object. Enter Inspector James Japp of Scotland Yard who also knows Poirot of old as they’ve worked together previously and he’s happy to have Poirot’s input. So the stage is set for the team’s first case, and it’s a wonderfully twisty and clever one.

Even though I know the book well, it was a real joy to return to, and to experience reading it with the focus on the fact it was Christie’s first book (as well as Poirot’s first outing). For a first novel it’s remarkably accomplished, eminently readable, fiendishly clever and very satisfying. So many elements stood out, and as I could remember whodunnit I could take pleasure in simply enjoying the story and seeing such well-loved characters take their place on Christie’s stage.

via Wikimedia Commons

Because Emily Inglethorp was poisoned it was hard not to think of Christie drawing on her experience as a dispenser (and poisons recurr again and again in Christie’s fiction). Interestingly, Cynthia Murdoch is also a dispenser and I did wonder if she was a little self-portrait? The characters are remarkably vivid and well-formed, and as I implied above, it’s hard to believe this is a first novel; those characters and relationships we take for granted now almost seem to have sprung ready formed from her pen. Already there’s a lovely relationship between Poirot and Hastings, with the latter playing the Watson-ish foil to the great detective, and Christie is not averse to poking fun at her characters.

“Yes, he is intelligent. But we must be more intelligent. We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all.”
I acquiesced.
“There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.”

Interestingly, the fledgling Poirot is less mannered in some ways than he eventually ends up; he has his moustaches and his quirks of behaviour, some of which are essential to the solution, but we are left in no doubt of his prestige in the Belgian force and the serious situation which has led him to this country. The two are very Holmes and Watson, as was the template in Golden Age crime of the time, with the wonderful Japp taking the Lestrade role. Nevertheless, these characters have an existence all of their own, proved I suppose by the fact they’ve become as embedded in our culture as has Sherlock Holmes.

But putting this aside, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” is a marvellously entertaining read with a twisty and ingenious solution. I think it’s hardly surprisingly that Christie and Poirot went on to be such a success; Hastings is a wonderful narrator (and I wish she’d used him more than she eventually did), Poirot brilliant and Japp the perfect foil for them both. It’s classic Christie, classic golden age crime and a wonderful start to my week of reading books from 1920! 😀

Recent Reads: Poirot and Me by David Suchet and Geoffrey Wansall

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Let’s face it, Agatha Christie and her wonderful detective, Hercule Poirot, don’t need any introduction from me. Christie is one of the best-selling authors in the world – ever! And even if you haven’t read any of her books, chances are you’re aware of the amazing adaptations of the Poirot stories, starring David Suchet in the title role. I first discovered the little Belgian in my teens, around the time of the all-star film adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express” and I was instantly hooked. In the decades since then, I’ve collected and read everything by Christie, and she’s most definitely one of my favourite authors.

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot

Until the LWT adaptations of Christie’s stories, Poirot had really not been well served by the film medium. Although I’d watched Albert Finney in “Orient” he was far removed from the written version of the character, and just about every adaptation featured a caricature Hercule, with stupid exaggerated mannerisms and cod accents. However, the advent of David Suchet in the role brought a sea change, and this book is full of his recollections of his life as Poirot – coming to the role at the start, his approach to acting and becoming the man, his quest to ensure the portrayal was accurate and his wish to bring all the Poirot stories to the small screen.

“Poirot and Me” (a lovely gift from OH at Christmas) is a beautifully easy and enjoyable read, brimming with anecdotes and memories. Suchet is meticulous in his approach to bringing the great detective to the small screen, determined that his portrayal will be of *Christie’s* Poirot, and it’s fascinating to watch the development process. He’s obviously put his heart and soul into the role, becoming the character to such an extent that he (and others!) often don’t know where Poirot ends and Suchet begins. He’s also a very astute interpreter, a true ‘character actor’ and he has some intriguing insights into Poirot’s nature and being. At the start of his career in Christie, he made a long crib of characteristics of the great man, which is reproduced at the end of the book and makes fascinating reading. Learning how he used his actors skills to get under the skin of the real Poirot was quite an eye-opener – being a proper actor isn’t a walk in the park. And Suchet filled in the gaps too, relating the other work he’s done between Poirot, and reminding us of the uncertainty of an actor’s life, going from job to job and not knowing where the future lies.

David Suchet

It’s a bit of a shock to realise that the first stories featuring the actor were back in 1989 and then you understand what a monumental undertaking it’s been for him to retain his grip on the character over all that time; not only improving and perfecting his portrayal along the way (which, let’s be honest, was pretty perfect from the start); but also digging down deeper into the nature of Poirot, highlighting his real character which has been somewhat buried over the years by the superficial public image. It’s a remarkable achievement which must have taken much from the actor, and he’s not afraid to show the emotions involved in this, whether positive or negative. The accounts of the filming of the final stories are moving, and I confess to having a tear or two in my eyes (I haven’t felt strong enough yet to watch “Curtain”!) We are really privileged to get a behind-the-scenes view of the creation of Hercule Poirot, so much of which is driven by Suchet himself

David Suchet comes across as a genuinely modest man, never anything less than generous about his colleagues, both in front of and behind the cameras. I have a great deal of respect for him, and as a fan of Poirot, also a great deal of gratitude for the way he’s brought the real detective to us in a way never done before. It’s an understatement to say he’s the definitive Poirot – he *is* Poirot! This is a lovely, lovely book and I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone with even a passing interest in Agatha Christie and her great detective. Essential reading!

(As a side note, much as I love battered old paperbacks, this really lovely hardback was another reminder of why I don’t like ebooks. Thick paper, lovely colour photos of the filming of the series, the ease of holding and reading, the smell of newly printed paper – not much is better than that!)

Christmas Lovelies – and Wonderful Secret Santa Gifts!

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(Actually a slightly misleading title, as there are birthday gifts included here too!!)

Christmas this year was full of lovely treats, the best of which was having Eldest Child, Middle Child and Youngest Child all together under one roof with us! As they get older, I often think they may soon want to spend the festive season with partners etc, so we make the most of this while it still happens.

However, there was still plenty of time for bookish joys, and I have been unbelievably spoiled with readable treats this year and first up are some birthday treats:

The fun thing was that I shared my Amazon wish list for the first time with my family and they responded rather beautifully with a varied selection of books covering Paris, Russia and the Cairngorms!

These were birthday treats too – I was pretty sure someone would get me the Morrissey book, the Neil Young one was a pleasant surprise as I didn’t know it existed, and the Laurens van der Post “Journey Into Russia” is a lovely first edition – as it’s a journey into Iron Curtain Russia, it’s going to be right up my street!

Christmas brought more treats – the French Market Cookbook was actually for my birthday, the Dylan book should be a fun read, and the third volume is from my old friend V who always surprises me every year with a book I haven’t got!

The Wainwright fellwalking books have been on my wish list for a *long* time – not that I’m likely to go fellwalking any time in the near future, as I live nowhere near the Lake District, alas. But they’re such beautiful books that I shall sit and read and gaze at them for hours!

 

And obviously my children have been paying attention to the wish list, as I’ve been wanting these three gems for a while – “Metropole” sounds fascinating, the condensed Dickens (!) should come in useful if I forget any of the plots and the Everyman Book of Russian Poets is just lovely.

These came from OH, who knows of my love of Poirot. I think David Suchet is the quintessential Hercule and I can’t wait to read his recollections. The other book is about Andover in Hampshire, where I grew up – should be a fascinating read!

And last (but definitely not least!), my very generous Virago Secret Santa, Liz at Libroediting, sent me such wonderful gifts:

This is the ‘before’ picture as the lovely packages sit under the tree.

 

Notice all the little notes? Liz sent messages about why she chose particular books which made the gifts even more special!

There were a couple more items not pictured, because I shall be writing about them soon. However, I feel thoroughly spoiled and very lucky to have family and friends who know what I love – thanks to all!

Happy Birthday Agatha Christie!

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Today is the birthday of one of my favourite authors – Agatha Christie, who was born on 15 September 1890.

agatha2

Christie is of course a literary legend, having created some of the most famous detectives in fiction, Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. She had a long and prolific career, producing 66 detective novels, many short stories, romances under the name of Mary Westmacott, and plays – including “The Mousetrap”, the world’s longest-running play.

That’s certainly some achievement! Agatha’s books have been among my favourites since I discovered Hercule Poirot in my teens, during that difficult reading transition from childhood to adulthood – this was in the days before there were dedicated Young Adult books, and in some ways I think this was preferable. If you were an avid reader, like me, you could easily make the transition to adult books in your early teens and murder mysteries were a good way to do this (we won’t mention my mum’s collection of Victoria Holt, Jean Plaidy, Mary Stewart, Susan Howatch et al!).

So I devoured Agatha’s books in my youth, collecting old and battered paperbacks where I could from charity shops, jumble sales etc (I didn’t have much book money at the time) and I still have them proudly on my shelves. I loved Poirot and Marple of course, but I’m also inordinately fond of her Tommy and Tuppence books, and also her thrillers.

agatha working

Christie has been criticised by some as having undeveloped characters or bad plotting, which I really don’t understand. She’s a brilliant writer in my view, in control of her material and what she wants to do and say with it. Her characters live for me and I return to her books over and over again, always with a great sense of enjoyment. Yes, perhaps her later books are not quite so good as the early ones – but not-so-good Christie is better than most others!

So happy birthday Dame Agatha – and thank you for the reading pleasure you’ve given me over the years!

Recent Reads: Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran

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I have got a little behind with reviewing over the Christmas period but as things are nearly back to normal again (back to work on Monday) I am trying to catch up. I didn’t get quite as much reading done over the festive break as I hoped but I have read a couple of largish volumes – of which this is one.

secret notebooks

I’ve long been a great lover of the work of Agatha Christie. I first read her in my teens and I guess she was one of those authors who helped me make the transition from Enid Blyton and her ilk to more adult books (along with Tolkien and my mother’s endless supplies of Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy novels!) After all these years I can’t recall which Christie I read first, but it may well have been “Murder on the Orient Express” – possibly stimulated by the 1974 film as I was a great cinemagoer in my teens.

Anyway, I had actually managed to miss the release of this book (and its recent follow-up volume) and so was delighted when OH surprised me with this on my recent birthday. Author John Curran has had unlimited and unprecedented access to Christie’s papers and discovered a collection of numbered notebooks containing plot ideas, character summaries and all sorts of plannings and jottings which shed light on AC’s creative process and working methods. Obviously they would be a little dry on their own if just reproduced, so he has taken themes from her work, grouped them into chapters and gives extracts and details from the notebooks that illuminate particular aspects of her books.

Curran’s knowledge and expertise in all matters Christie are quite overwhelming at times. This is not a criticism but I did feel that perhaps I should have read this book in smaller chunks to make sure I was taking everything in. Some of Dame Agatha’s books seem to have been plotted in detail, while for others (particularly earlier novels) there is less – or no – evidence of the planning stage. There are tantalising hints of plots never developed (particularly an obsession with non-identical twins) and it is absolutely astonishing how fertile her mind was.

As a lovely bonus, the book contains two unpublished Poirot stories. One, “The Incident of the Dog’s Ball”, is in many ways a dry run for “Dumb Witness” – but no less entertaining for that, especially as it features Poirot and Hastings! The other is a more curious and fascinating thing, being an alternative version of “The Capture of Cerberus” from “The Labours of Hercules”. The story as finally published in the finished book features a night club called Hell with a guard dog, drugs and drama involving Countess Vera Rossakoff. However, the alternate version couldn’t be more different. Countess Vera is still present, but the plot involves a not-very-well disguised Hitler figure and an assassination plot! Dame Agatha doing world politics? Now there’s a first! Curran’s commentary on the story is excellent as ever, reminding us of the state of Europe at the time AC was writing.

IMF15-0112092914.jpg Author Agatha Christie

Like the best books about writers, this one made me want to scurry back to my AC shelf and start reading her all over again. Curran is not afraid to sing AC’s praises, which pleases me no end because I get fed up with people condemning her books as lightweight. They’re not – she was a remarkably good writer, excellent at plotting and her characterisation is not thin or insubstantial – she was just so good at it that she could get a person across to you very efficiently and in a few short sentences. Highly recommended for all fans of Christie – and I’m rather looking forward to the second volume, “Murder in the Making”, which promises an unpublished Miss Marple – yay!

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