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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!

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.

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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.

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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!

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