It’s the letter P this week in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet and I have another of Agatha Christie’s books to illustrate the letter.
If you haven’t read any of Agatha Christie’s books don’t begin with Postern of Fate. It’s the last novel she wrote, published in 1973, and it’s rambling and repetitive, with very little in the way of mystery. It’s the fourth of the Tommy and Tuppence Beresford mysteries and it begins with the ageing couple, now retired and living in a new home. I read it because I like Tommy and Tuppence and wanted to know what they were doing in this final book.
I liked the opening pages in which Tuppence is bemoaning the fact that they have so many books and there isn’t enough room to shelve them. They’d sorted out their books before they moved house, only bringing with them the ones they couldn’t bear to part with, but they had bought books from the previous owners of the house. Tuppence is sorting through them and in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow she sees that some of the letters are underlined in red ink, spelling out an intriguing message: ‘Mary Jordan did not die naturally. It was one of us. I think I know which one.’
Naturally the Beresfords have to find out more and after talking to some of the local people Tuppence discovers that Mary Jordan had lived in the house during the First World War and there are rumours that she was a German secret agent. It appeared she had died from accidental poisoning. But they aren’t satisfied and want to know more. Whilst Tuppence continues talking to the locals, Tommy goes to London and talks to Captain Pikeaway, ex-head of Special Branch and the enigmatic Mr Robinson (who appeared in Agatha Christie’s thriller Passenger to Frankfurt). They discover some facts, and have lots of meandering discussions, but the denouement is very vague (at least I found it so).
Its interest for me lies in what the book reveals about Agatha Christie. Clearly she is remembering her own childhood when Tuppence is reminiscing about the books she had read as a child, listing them and exclaiming how much she liked them – books such as The New Treasure Seekers, lots of Stanley Weyman books (he wrote historical romances), The Prisoner of Zenda, Treasure Island and Kidnapped.
Throughout her life she was an avid reader and her books include many references to a variety of sources from Shakespeare to T S Eliot. The title of this book derives from a poem Gates of Damascus by John Elroy Flecker, quoted as an epigraph and by Tommy as he worries about keeping Tuppence out of danger:
Four great gates has the city of Damascus …
Postern of Fate, the Desert Gate, Disaster’s Cavern, Fort of Fear …
Pass not beneath, O Caravan, or pass not singing.
Have you heard
That silence where the birds are dead, yet something pipeth like a bird?
I think when Tommy and Tuppence are complaining about the difficulties of getting tradesmen to complete work on their new house Agatha Christie was writing from experience:
Electricians arriving in a kindly tangle of optimism and efficiency had stated work. “Coming along fine now, not much more to do,” they said. “We’ll be back this afternoon.” But they hadn’t been back that afternoon. Tommy was not precisely surprised. He was used, now, to that general pattern of labour in the building trade, electrical trade, gas employees and others. They came, they showed efficiency, they made optimistic remarks, they went away to fetch something. They didn’t come back. One rang up numbers on the telephone but they always seemed to be the wrong numbers. If they were the right numbers, the right man was not working at this particular branch of the trade, whatever it was. (pages 35-36)
Then there are her misgivings about the state of the country:
England was in a funny state, a different state from what it had been. Or was it really always in the same state? Always underneath the smooth surface there was some black mud. There wasn’t clear water down to the pebbles, down to the shells, lying on the bottom of the sea. There was something moving, something sluggish somewhere, something that had to be found, suppressed. (page 138)
But there is rather too much of this sort of digression in Postern of Fate and Agatha Christie comes across as disillusioned with modern life. Here, for example, she has Colonel Pikeaway complaining about the worship of money:
…big fortunes made out of drugs, drug pushers, drugs being sent all over the world, being marketed, a worship of money. Money not just for buying yourself a big house and two Rolls Royces, but money for making more money and doing down, doing away with the old beliefs. Beliefs in honesty, in fair trading. (page 249)
Although there are things I like in this book and I am glad I’ve read it, I think it must be my least favourite of Agatha Christie’s books that I’ve read.