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By The Pricking of My Thumbs, Agatha Christie

agatha christie

Agatha Christie can always be relied upon to keep me reading long after I should have switched off the bedside light. Even when she’s not at her best (which she sadly isn’t in By the Pricking of My Thumbs), her novels contain so many complexities, clues and red herrings that I’m compelled to read on and on and on just to find out who did what and how. I long ago gave up trying to piece together the clues myself however, preferring to leave the hard graft to the sleuths, whether that is the flamboyant professional Hercule Poirot or the quietly razor-sharp amateur, Miss Jane Marple.

It was years before I realised via a BBC series that Christie had created two other sleuths;  Tommy Beresford and his wife Tuppence.  By the Pricking of My Thumbs is the fourth novel to feature this pair though the first I’ve read. Unlike her other sleuths, Christie advanced the ages of this page with each novel according to real time, so in By the Pricking of My Thumbs we find them as grandparents rather than the  bright young adventurers introduced in the first book published in the 1920s. Advancing age has not however dimmed their interest in adventures or their ability to smell when something isn’t quite right.

 

Their suspicions are aroused after a visit to Tommy’s Aunt Ada at Sunny Ridge Nursing Home.  Tuppence is perturbed by another resident, a Mrs. Lancaster, who, in the midst of a conversation suddenly asks: “Was it your poor child?”and goes on to talk about “something behind the fireplace”. Three weeks later Aunt Ada dies and leaves Tommy  a painting given to her by Mrs.Lancaster. Tuppence wants to return the painting to its rightful owner but learns Mrs Lancaster has been removed from Sunny Ridge and all attempts to contact have come to nothing. Tuppence is sure the house featured in the painting is one she has seen before. If she can only find that house she might be able to find Mrs Lancaster, she reasons. With Tommy off at a conference, she has time on her hands to go in search of the house, and the missing woman. It’s a quest that leads her to a village where multiple children were murdered some 20 years earlier and a house considered haunted by some locals.

The solution is a complex one, involving a doctored painting, diamond smugglers, secret rooms and a woman who Tuppence thinks could pass for a friendly witch.  One of the first critics of the novel, Robert Barnard, wasn’t impressed with the way the novel progressed, commenting that it started well but declined rapidly into “a welter of half-realised plots.” I didn’t notice any half-finished plots myself though I did feel the ending was rather rushed. The middle section moved along at a satisfying pace however.  This features Tuppence primarily, following her as she uses logic and determination to pinpoint the house in the painting and interview a few of its neighbours before going missing.

I’m glad I encountered Tommy and Tuppence in their advancing years rather than as the “bright young things” of the 1920s as they were portrayed in Partners in Crime and The Secret Adversary. Their age gives them a more reflective edge which Christie plays up in the early chapters when they discuss whether to visit Aunt Ada.

It is regrettably true that in these days there is in nearly every family, the problem of what might be called an “Aunt Ada.” …   Arrangements have to be made. Suitable establishments for looking after the elderly have to be inspected and full questions asked about them. … The days are past when [they] lived on happily in the homes where they had lived for many years previously, looked after by devoted if sometimes somewhat tyrannical old servants.

Not that the Beresfords have any illusions about all elderly people being sweet natured and docile. Tuppence takes the stance that some in their eighties are perfect devils and she will feel sorry only for those elderly people who are genuinely nice.  When the book begins neither she nor Tommy actually think of themselves as old or realise that other people automatically considered them deadly dull solely on account of their age. But by the time the book reaches its climax, Tuppence, threatened by a killer, comes face to face with her own reality: that she is old and her body is not that of the young girl who put her life in danger while operating on the fringes of the intelligence service.

Miss Marple will always remain my favourite Agatha Christie sleuth but I’d be happy to meet up again with the Beresfords in the next, and final novel Postern of Fate when apparently they are in their seventies and have retired to a rambling old house in a quiet English village.

Footnotes

About this book: By the Pricking of My Thumbs was first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in November 1968.  The title of the book comes from  one of the witches’ speeches in Act 4, of Macbeth. 

Why I read this book: I found this in a list of books published in 1968 when I was searching for something to read as part of the #1968club hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen at kaggsysbookishramblings. I needed a change of pace after reading Vernon God Little.

 

From Australian mystery to the doyenne of crime in six steps

six degrees June 2016

Time for another Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest which requires participants to create a chain of books, linking one to the other in whatever leaps and connections our brains can devise.

Our starting book this month is  Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay which is, once again, a novel I have never read. I’ve seen the film many times though — it’s one of those atmospheric productions, seemingly shot through a hazy heat filter and featuring fresh-faced students and a teacher from an Australian girls’ school who scramble about Hanging Rock wearing floaty white muslin dresses and black boots.  They disappear without trace. Only one body is ever found.

A picnic followed by a tragedy reminds me of the opening scene of another novel adapted for film —Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love.  It begins on a beautiful, cloudless day with a Joe and Clarissa about to begin a picnic. A cry interrupts them and they see a hot air balloon, with a young boy in the basket and an older man being dragged behind it. Attempts to avert a tragedy fail. The event threatens to wreck Joe’s life when he becomes the target of the obsessional attention of one of the other rescuers.

Obsession takes me to Steven King’s Misery where author Paul Sheldon is rescued from a car accident in a snowstorm by a woman who describes herself as ‘his number one fan’. As a former nurse Annie Wilkes has the skills required to mend his broken legs and get him back to health but her true nature is revealed when she discovers the contents of Sheldon’s latest novel. He begins to fear she is dangerously disturbed and to what lengths she will go to get her way.

Annie Wilkes could go a few rounds with another fictional nurse I reckon — Mildred Ratched in my fourth link,  One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.  She rules over a ward in an American psychiatric hospital with an iron fist and steely eyes  and it’s her battle for battle against a new patient, Randle McMurphy, that provides the plot of this novel. What Nurse Ratched wants is a ward full of docile patients who follow the rules and allow her to control their lives. McMurphy (who has faked insanity to avoid going to prison) is having none of this and its efforts to get the patients to stand up for themselves that sets him on course for a showdown with the medical establishment. 

Writing convincingly about mental illness is tough.  Kesey was able to draw on his experience of working as an orderly at a Californian mental health facility. In addition to speaking to patients he also personally experimented with some of the drugs they were given. The next book in my chain is also the product of a mental health worker: The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer. Filer trained and worked as a mental health nurse, then later became a mental health researcher at the University of Bristol.  The central character of his novel is a 19-year-old schizophrenic who was sectioned because he couldn’t cope on his own in the community. With the aid of an old typewriter he tries to conduct his own therapy, bashing out his  feelings of guilt about something that happened to his brother several years earlier.    

Filer gained several awards in recognition of his role in raising awareness through literature to mental healthcare and how the public felt about mental health. His novel earned him the Costa award for first time novel in 2013 and was also named the Costa book of the year.

The following year another debut novel that featured a character with some mental issues won the Costa first novel award. Which brings me to book number five in my chain: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey.  This is a deeply moving book with an octogenarian narrator who cannot remember what she did a few moments ago or how many tins of peaches she has in her cupboard. Advancing dementia means she doesn’t even recognise her daughter sometimes. But one thing she holds fast to is her certain knowledge that something has happened to her friend Elizabeth and since no-one else will believe her it’s up to her, Maud, to find where Elizabeth has gone. 

A female character of advancing age who few would think of as a force for justice. Now who better fits that description than one of the most enduring figures in crime fiction —step forward Miss Jane Marple whose shrewd intelligence and understanding of human nature enables her to solve difficult crimes. For my sixth and final book in the chain I could name any one of the 12 Agatha Christie novels featuring Miss Marple but the one that fits the link best is actually the last Miss Marple book to be written: Nemesis. In this novel, published in 1971, Miss Marple is asked by a dying millionaire to  look into an unspecified crime which turns out to involves a missing girl and a millionaire’s son accused of her death. It requires our cardigan-wearing sleuth to take on the mantle of the Greek goddess of Nemesis, a figure who represents justice and he exposure of wrong-doing. 

And in a sense that mystery of a missing schoolgirl brings us back to where we began the chain in Australia. I bet if Miss Marple had been called upon the mystery of hanging rock wouldn’t have remained a mystery for very long. 

Three Faces of Crime

I don’t read a lot of crime fiction but now and again I get a hankering for something in that line. I am clearly not destined to be a detective however because  I invariably pick the wrong person as the perpetrator and miss the significant clues along the way to their exposure. It doesn’t really matter as long as the writing is of a good standard and the plot doesn’t stretch credulity too much. What appeals to me about these books is they give me a chance to turn the dial down on the brain for a while. I’m not yearning for cosiness or the kind of book where it goes in one eye and out the other without touching the sides but I definitely want to be entertained.

All three of the crime novels I’ve read this year have had something about them that lifted them above the ordinary though their styles couldn’t be more different.

crimefiction

 

My love affair with Chief Inspector Gamache continues unabated. A Fatal Grace is book number two  in the series by Louise Penny but the fourth I’ve read (I’ve not been reading in order).

She takes us back to the Three Pines village, a Canadian community so small it can barely be found on the map. It’s a close knit community but there’s one person that the village has never taken to their heart: CC de Poitiers. This is a woman who alienated everyone from her husband and her sad, cowed daughter to her lover so there are not many tears shed when she is electrocuted during the annual curling event. But Armand Gamache is a man full of compassion and an understanding of human nature, skills which ably equip him to understand the undercurrents as he searches for the truth.  A well written novel which kept me guessing (almost) to the end and entertained with its wonderful scenes set in the village’s cosy bistro. I admire the way Penny has developed these characters, giving them little quirks and tics but never descending to the level of caricature. She has also cleverly set up a storyline that is expanded in later novels about a threat from unknown forces to our beloved Chief Inspector. If you’ve not been introduced to Gamache, I recommend you remedy that soon.

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cover of the first edition of ''The Mysterious Affair at Styles''. Shared via Creative Commons License from Wikipedia

The cover of the first edition of ”The Mysterious Affair at Styles”. Shared via Creative Commons License from Wikipedia

It’s taken me long enough to get around to reading The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the first novel to be published by Agatha Christie. It’s the novel that introduces Hercule Poirot to the world as a man with eccentric habits and a razor sharp mind.

The story of The Mysterious Affair at Styles is rather simple by contemporary standards – just one death and that happens off stage so sparing us any ghoulish details. But it’s the way the novel evokes a particular time and place that I found more interesting.  It’s written in 1916 when the world of the Edwardian landed family seems to be in its last stages. The multi-generational family living at the country house of Styles try to keep up their old way of life but the reality of World War 1 with its talk of war work, rumours of spies and shortages of essentials impinge on their comforts. Poirot himself has been displaced by the war raging in his native Belgium, finding refuge with a few of his countryman in a house owned by Emily Inglethorp, the matriarch of Styles manor house.  It puts him in pole position when his benefactor is found dead inside her locked bedroom.  Not a book that lovers of highbrow literary fiction will enjoy very much it was interesting to see where the legend of Poirot began.

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Both Penny and Christie give us professional detectives who possess an extraordinary ability to understand the forces that drive people to murder, maim and prey on the weak and defenceless. It’s often not the crime itself that intrigues them, but the character that lies behind it.

dissectionThe protagonist in my third novel  isn’t a detective nor does he have any interest in the criminal mind. He doesn’t easily understand emotions in fact because Asperger’s Syndrome severely limits his emotional response to situations and makes it difficult for him to interpret other people’s behaviour. Patrick Fort is however fascinated by death, a fascination triggered when as a young boy he witnessed his father’s sudden demise in a road accident. His obsessive desire to know why someone dies takes him to a university anatomy course in Cardiff where he he looks for answers by dissecting cadavers donated in the interests of furthering medical understanding. After weeks of working on Corpse 19, the body of a middle-aged man, he is convinced the diagnosis given on the death certificate is incorrect. Few believe his claim that Corpse 19 did not die naturally but was murdered in a hospital high-dependency ward for coma patients.

The introduction of a ‘detective’ with Asperger’s Syndrome has of course obvious parallels with Mark Haddon’s hugely successful The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night Time. Rubbernecker uses a similarly emotionally disconnected voice but was rather more successful for me than Haddon’s protagonist. There are times when Patrick Fort’s lack of social skills  result in some unintentionally funny scenes but we also empathise with his mother whose patience at her son’s behaviour has been tested to despair.

There is a lot to appreciate in this novel though Bauer’s ambition seems to have led her to intersperse the narrative of Patrick’s quest with several other strands which don’t work as well. The most prominent is the narrative of a middle-aged car accident victim man who is trying to recover his voice and the use of his body after lying in a coma for many years. Then there is a story line of a nurse working in the same coma unit who sets out to snare the wealthy husband of a patient. The connection between these strands does eventually come together though it makes for some confusing reading initially. I’ll give credit to Bauer however for attempting to break new ground in the realm of  psychological crime fiction. The shame is that we won’t get another chance to meet Patrick in any further novels.

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