Absent in the Spring by Mary Westmacott (Agatha Christie)

img_20180809_0727129331

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I love Agatha Christie’s crime fiction but I’ve held back from reading her other books written under the name of Mary Westmacott, not sure just what to expect. So, I was very glad to find that Absent in the Spring is just as good as her other books and I was thoroughly absorbed in the story of Joan Scudamore who was stranded in the desert, after visiting her daughter in Baghdad.

Agatha Christie managed to keep the true identity of Mary Westmacott a secret for fifteen years! Absent in the Spring is the one book she wrote that  satisfied her completely – and having now read it I can see why. She wrote the book in just three days in 1944. It had ‘grown inside‘ her for six or seven years. She had visualised all the characters and they were there ready for her to write about them and she just had to get it down on paper, writing in a ‘white heat‘, without interruptions until it was finished, leaving her exhausted. She slept for more or less twenty-four hours afterwards. She took the title from Shakespeare’s sonnet that begins ‘From you I have been absent in the spring.’ (Sonnet 98)

It is a great example of an unlikeable character that makes fascinating reading – you don’t have to like a character to love a book. In her Autobiography she wrote that it was:

… the picture of a woman with a complete image of herself, of what she was, but about which she was completely mistaken. Through her actions, her feelings and thoughts this would be revealed to the reader. She would be, as it were, continually meeting herself, not recognising herself, but becoming increasingly uneasy. What brought about this revelation would be the fact that for the first time in her life she was alone – completely alone – for four or five days. (page 516)

The novel is set in Mesopotamia (corresponding to today’s Iraq, mostly, but also parts of modern-day Iran, Syria and Turkey) in a railway rest-house at Tel Abu Hamid on the Turkish border, where Joan is stranded, delayed by floods – no trains or vehicles can get through to Mosul, her next stop on her journey home to London. There are no other travellers there, only an Arab boy and an Indian servant who brings her meals, but who speak little English and there is nowhere to go, except to walk in the desert.

At first she occupies herself writing letters and reading the two books she has with her, The Power House by John Buchan and Memoirs of Lady Catherine Dysart. Then she starts thinking about herself and gradually relives her past life, all the time with a growing feeling of unease and anxiety as she reinterprets her past. She wonders, for the first time in her life what she is really like and what other people think of her, with that unsettling, anxious feeling that she is not the person she thought she was. And she resolves to put things right when she returns home.

She is jolted out of her complacency  and self deception as she remembers how Rodney had looked as she watched him leave Victoria Station:

Suddenly, in the desert,with the sun pouring down on her, Joan gave a quick uncontrollable shiver.

She thought, No, no – I don’t want to go on – I don’t want to think about this …

Rodney, striding up the platform, his head thrown back, the tired sag of his shoulders all gone. A man who had been relieved of an intolerable burden …

Really, what was the matter with her? She was imagining things, inventing them. Her eyes had played a trick on her.

Why hadn’t he waited to see the train pull out?

She was imagining – Stop, that didn’t make it any better. If you imagined a thing like that, it meant that such an idea was already in your head.

And it couldn’t be true – the inference that she had drawn simply could not be true.

She was saying to herself (wasn’t she?) that Rodney was glad she was going away …

And that simply couldn’t be true! (pages 55-56)

It really is a most remarkable book. On the surface it is a simple story, but in fact it is a complex and in-depth character study, with a growing sense of tension. The setting adds to the uneasiness as Joan walks in the desert to get away from the rest-house, with its refuse dump of tins enclosed by a tangle of barbed wire,  and a space where skinny chickens run about squawking loudly and with clouds of flies surrounding the area. There is a twist at the end of the book, which I had begun to anticipate as I approached the final pages, which rounded it off very well. An excellent book.

Now, I really must get hold of her other Mary Westmacott books!

My copy is a paperback, published by Fontana, 2nd impression 1983, 192 pages. This is the 4th book for my 10 Books of Summer 2018 Challenge.

Agatha Christie’s Short Stories: The Mysterious Mr Quin

Agatha Christie blogathon

This post is my contribution to  Little Bits of Classics and and Christina Wehner‘s Agatha Christie Blogathon in honour of Agatha Christie’s 126th birthday on the 15th of September.

Agatha Christie is one of my favourite authors. I first began reading her books when I was in my teens but it was in 2008 when Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise launched the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge that I began to read my way through all her books. There are 66 mystery and detective novels and numerous collections of short stories. In February of this year I completed my reading of her 66 mystery and detective novels and some but not all of her short stories.

The Short Stories

There is some confusion over how many short stories Agatha Christie wrote. The Agatha Christie website records that she wrote 150 stories, whereas Wikipedia records that she wrote 153 short stories, published in 14 collections in the UK and in the US. By my reckoning she wrote 157 short stories, published in a number of collections, but I may have included duplications  as some stories were published under different names in the US Collections. I’m hoping that as I read the stories the actual number will become clear. For my list of her short stories see my Agatha Christie Short Stories Page.

img_20160917_122804

But whatever the real total may be there can be no doubt that it is an impressive collection of stories originally published in several magazines and then in a number of collections. They do vary in quality, some are very short, almost skeletal, with the puzzle element given greater emphasis than characterisation.The first collection of her short stories, Poirot Investigates was published in 1924, when Agatha Christie was 34.

As today’s topic in this Blogathon is dedicated to anything about or by Agatha Christie not related either to Poirot or Miss Marple this post is about one collection of short stories:

The Mysterious Mr Quin

The Mysterious Mr Quin First Edition Cover 1930.jpg
The Mysterious Mr Quin First Edition Cover

This was first published in 1930 featuring Mr Harley Quin and Mr Satterthwaite. This is my favourite of her collections, containing some of her very best short stories.

In her Autobiography Agatha Christie said these stories were her favourites too. The stories were not written as a series, but one at a time at intervals of three or four months or longer and were first published in magazines. They are set in the 1920s and have a paranormal element to them, as well as a touch of romance. I found them all most entertaining.

In the Foreword she describes Mr Quin as:

… a figure invisible except when he chose, not quite human, yet concerned with the affairs of human beings and particularly of lovers. He is also the advocate for the dead.

Mr Satterthwaite, who was in his sixties, a little man, with an elf-like face, is Mr Quin’s friend:

Mr Satterthwaite, the gossip, the looker-on at life, the little man who without ever touching the depths of joy and sorrow himself, recognizes drama when he sees it, and is conscious that he has a part to play.

The titles are

1. The Coming of Mr. Quin
2. The Shadow on the Glass
3. At the “Bells and Motley”
4. The Sign in the Sky
5. The Soul of the Croupier
6. The Man from the Sea
7. The Voice in the Dark
8. The Face of Helen
9. The Dead Harlequin
10. The Bird with the Broken Wing
11. The World’s End
12. Harlequin’s Lane

In the opening story, The Coming of Mr Quin, Mr Satterthwaite first meets him on New Year’s Eve, at a house party when talk had turned to the suicide of Mr Capel, the man who had originally owned the house. The enigmatic Mr Quin, a tall, slender man, appears in the doorway.  The light shining through the stained glass above the door makes it appear that he is dressed in every colour of the rainbow but when he moves the effect fades and Mr Satterthwaite can see that he is  dressed conventionally. Whenever he appears in the stories, some trick of the light initially produces the same effect. Mr Quin subtly steers Mr Satterthwaite into discovering the truth behind Mr Capel’s suicide.

In the following eleven stories Harley Quin always appears unexpectedly and suddenly, and then just as suddenly disappears, having influenced Mr Satterthwaite to change people’s lives, and solve mysteries by producing clues and asking pointed questions, making the solution obvious. He is, without doubt, the most mysterious and unusual character in all of Agatha Christie’s books.

One of my favourite stories is The Man From The Sea. Mr Satterthwaite, who is a wealthy man, althought the source of his wealth is not revealed, is on a Mediterranean island. Walking along the cliffs he meets Anthony Cosden, about to leap to his death. He’d been planning to do so the previous evening but had been prevented when he’d met someone else at the edge of the cliff – a mysterious man in fancy dress, ‘ a kind of Harlequin rig‘. Anthony reveals he only had six months to live and doesn’t want a lingering end and in any case he has no one in the world belonging to him – if only he had a son …

Mr Satterthwaite next meets a woman in black in the quiet garden of what seems to be an empty house. The woman asks him if he would like to see inside the house and clearly needs someone to talk to, someone to hear the tragic story of her life. It’s a touching story of remorse and the desire to make amends.

Mr Quin’s role in this and in other stories is to help Mr Satterthwaite to see beneath the surface, to see things in a different light. At the end he takes his leave, and all Mr Satterthwaite see is his friend walking towards the edge of the cliff.

The final story, Harlequin’s Lane is another bittersweet tale of lost love and fate and rather eerie. Mr Satterthwaite goes to visit a married couple, the Denmans, who live at Ashmead, on Harlequin’s Lane. Mrs Denman is a Russian refugee whom John Denman had married after escaping Russia on the outbreak of the revolution.

They are out when he arrives and he takes a walk down the Lane, wondering about its name and was not surprised when he meets his elusive friend, Harley Quin, who tells him the Lane belongs to him; it’s a Lovers’ Lane. It ends at waste ground covered with a rubbish heap where they meet Molly  who is to be Pierrette in the masquerade the Denmans have planned for the weekend. A car accident interrupts the arrangments injuring some of the dancers, until Mr Satterthwaite intervenes, but still tragedy strikes. Mr Quin, seems to have cast a magical air of unreality over Mr Satterthwaite:

Mr Satterthwaite quailed. Mr Quin seemed to have loomed to enormous proportions … Mr Satterthwaite had a vista of something at once menacing and terrifying … Joy, Sorrow, Despair.

And his comfortable little soul shrank back appalled.

Truly a mystifying collection of stories. I enjoyed it immensely.

Reading Challenges: Agatha Christie Reading Challenge, Mount TBR Reading Challenge, R.I.P. Challenge and the Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt in the category of a ‘performer’.

The current paperback edition:

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; Masterpiece Ed edition (2 Jun. 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007154844
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007154845

Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie

Tommy and Tuppence Beresford first appeared in Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary (first published in 1922) when they had just met up after World War One, both in their twenties. Their next appearance is in Partners in Crime, a collection of short stories, first published in 1929.

Life has become a little dull, especially for Tuppence. Tommy works for the Secret Service but wants to see more action, so when Tommy’s boss Mr Carter offers them both a new assignment they jump at the opportunity. It’s to take over for six months the running of the International Detective Agency under the name of Mr Theodore Blunt. It had been a front for Bolshevist-spying activity and in particular they were to look out for blue letters with a Russian stamp on them. They were also free to undertake any other detective work that comes their way.

All of the stories first appeared in magazines between 1923 and 1928 and they are parodies of fictional detectives of the period, some of whom I recognised and some I didn’t. When she came to write her autobiography many years later, even Agatha Christie couldn’t recognise some of them, noting that whilst some had become household names, others had ‘more or less perished in oblivion. Those I recognised include Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, The Old Man in the Corner, and Hercule Poirot, himself.

Most of the stories are self-contained adventures. They are slight and brief, and not really taxing or difficult to solve. I enjoyed reading them, because they are written with a light touch, and a sense of humour and fun. Tommy and Tuppence are likeable characters; Tommy is not as dizzy as David Walliams played him in the recent TV series. I’ve now read all the Tommy and Tuppence stories. There are four full length novels as well as Partners in Crime (Tommy and Tuppence 2) and unlike Poirot and Miss Marple Tommy and Tuppence age with each book:

  1. 1922 The Secret Adversary (Tommy and Tuppence 1)
  2. 1941 N or M? (Tommy and Tuppence 3)
  3. 1968 By the Pricking of My Thumbs (Tommy and Tuppence 4)
  4. 1973 Postern of Fate (Tommy and Tuppence 5)

Reading Challenges: the Agatha Christie Reading ChallengeMount TBR Reading Challenge, and the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt.

My copy is the current edition with this cover:

 

The first UK edition, however, has this cover, which I prefer.


So I’m choosing this cover for the Vintage Scavenger Hunt, in the category of a book showing a Shadowy Figure on its cover.

The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie

In The Secret of Chimneys, Anthony Cade is drawn into a deadly conspiracy when he agrees to carry out an errand for his old friend, Jimmy McGrath. He has to deliver the manuscript memoir of Count Stylptich of Herzoslovakia to a firm of London publishers and to return a packet of letters to a blackmail victim.

It’s one of Agatha Christie’s early ‘thrillers’, first published in 1925. It is also the last full length crime novel of hers that I had left to read. I really thought I had read it but I think I was getting it mixed up with The Seven Dials Mystery, which features some of the same characters and is also set at Chimneys, a large country house, the home of Lord Caterham. The Secret of Chimneys is the first book in which Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard appears. He is an intelligent officer, outwardly impassive and stolid, but who reaches his conclusions applying common sense. Later he appeared in four more of her novels – The Seven Dials Mystery, Cards on the Table, Murder is Easy and Towards Zero.

Agatha Christie declines to describe Chimneys, other than to say it is a ‘venerable pile‘ and that descriptions of it can be found in any guidebook. ‘It is also No. 3 in Historic Homes of England, price 21s. On Thursdays coaches come over from Middleham and view those portions of it which are open to the public. In view of all these facilities, to describe Chimneys would be superfluous.‘ (page 128)

The 1920s upper class life style is evident in the lavish breakfast that is laid on at Chimneys, set out on ‘half a score of heavy silver dishes, ingeniously kept hot by patent arrangements. Omelet, said Lord Caterham, lifting each lid in turn. Eggs and bacon, kidneys, devilled bird, haddock, cold ham, cold pheasant.’ (page 134)

I’m not going to attempt to summarise the plot of this book, other than to say that it revolves around political events in the fictitious Balkan state of Herzoslovakia, with attempts to reinstate its royal family, and also international crime concerning the theft of jewellery  by a thief known in Europe as ‘King Victor’. It reminds me of P G Wodehouse’s books, written in the same light and humorous style.  It is sheer escapism and although it is not one of my favourite of her books, it is an entertaining book.

Reading Challenges: Agatha Christie Reading Challenge, Mount TBR challenge and Golden Vintage Mystery Cover Challenge: Bloodstains

Agatha Christie Reading Challenge Update: January 2016

agatha_christie_rcI thought I’d read all of Agatha Christie’s full length novels, but looking through my list of her books, I discovered that I haven’t read The Secret of Chimneys, one of her earlier books, so I’ve just started reading it. This will complete my reading/re-reading of her crime novels (66 books), although there are three that I haven’t reviewed:

  • The Seven Dials Mystery
  • Murder in Mesopotamia
  • A Pocket Full of Rye

I may have to re-read these three in order to refresh my memory before I can write about them!

Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie

Sparkling cyanideSparkling Cyanide (published as Remembered Death in America) was first published in 1945. It is a novel in which a crime is investigated a year after it was committed.

Rosemary, the wife of wealthy George Barton dies suddenly at her birthday party at a West End Restaurant, the Luxembourg, after drinking a glass of champagne laced with cyanide. Rosemary had been in a depressed and unhappy state of mind after having a bout of influenza.The official verdict was that she had committed suicide but a year on George, having received anonymous letters stating her death wasn’t suicide, is convinced that she was murdered. He arranges another party, this time for Iris, Rosemary’s younger sister, inviting the same guests, hoping to identify the murderer. But his plan goes awry, as after drinking a toast to Rosemary’s remembrance the party ends with yet another death.

Rosemary was a wealthy heiress in her own right and after her death her inheritance had passed to Iris. George had invited Colonel Race* to both parties, but he had been absent both times. He had known George since his boyhood but had only once met Rosemary, who he thought of as ‘a singularly lovely nit-wit – but certainly not a melancholic type‘. He helps Chief Inspector Kemp of Scotland Yard to investigate both deaths. As well as Iris and George the guests at the party were Ruth Lessing, George’s efficient secretary, and Rosemary’s friends, Anthony Browne, a man with a dubious past and a politician Stephen Farraday and his wife Sandra.

In a series of flashbacks Agatha Christie highlights each person and their relationships with Rosemary and it appears that each one, including George and Iris had a motive for killing her. I was convinced quite early on that one particular character had to be the murderer, but reading further on I began to have doubts, switching from one person to another. As it turned out I was right about my first suspect – Agatha Christie was expert at writing things that could be taken two ways. If I was right about the ‘who’ I couldn’t work out the ‘how’, particularly for the second death, but knew that where everyone sat at the round table was significant. When that was revealed I thought it was difficult to believe, which is why I don’t place it among her best books – but it’s still a very enjoyable read. And it was popular with the public achieving sales of thirty thousand in the first year of publication.

*Colonel Race – first appeared in The Man in the Brown Suit, also in Cards on the Table and Death on the Nile. His appearance in Sparkling Cyanide was his last. He was an agent working for the British Secret Service, often sent on difficult or sensitive missions. In this book he is over sixty, described as ‘a tall, erect, military figure with sunburnt face, closely cropped iron-grey hair, and shrewd dark eyes‘.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge and Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt for the Golden Age in the category of ‘Bottle/Glass for drinking’.

Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie

In 1944 Agatha Christie published Death Comes as the End and in 1945 Sparkling Cyanide, neither of them featuring Hercule Poirot or Miss Jane Marple. By chance these two books are the last full length crime fiction novels by Agatha Christie that I had left to read. There are plenty of short stories of hers that I still have to read and her Mary Westmacott novels as well as her plays, so it is not the end of my reading of her work.

Death Comes As The End

The idea to write a detective story set in Ancient Egypt came from a friend, Professor Stephen Glanville – Death Comes as the End was the result. It is set on the West bank of the Nile at Thebes in about 2000 BC. But in her Authors Note Agatha Christie explained that both time and place are incidental and any other time or place would have served as well. She based her characters and plot on some letters from a Ka priest in the 11th Dynasty:

The letters painted to perfection the picture of a living family: the father fussy, opinionated, annoyed with his sons who did not do as he said; the sons, one obedient but not obviously bright, and the other sharp-tempered, showy, and extravagant. The letters the father wrote to his two sons were about how he must take care of a certain middle-aged woman, obviously one of those poor relations who all through the ages live with families, to whom the heads of families are always kindly, whereas the children usually grow up disliking them because they are often sycophants and makers of mischief. (Agatha Christie’s Autobiography page 514)

From these letters she constructed her story, adding Renisenb, a daughter, Nofret, a concubine for Imhotep, the father, a spoilt younger son and a greedy but shrewd grandmother. He is besotted by Nofret who antagonises the family, setting Imhotep against them. Things come to a head after Nofret has manipulated Imhotep to disinherit his sons and marry her and she is found dead, apparently having fallen from a cliff. More deaths follow.

The mystery in this book is actually not too puzzling. For me, its interest lay in the setting and period details. Agatha Christie, according to her Autobiography had done a lot of reading from books lent to her by Glanville and had also bombarded him with questions about daily life and customs in the 11th Dynasty – such as what food did they eat, how did they cook it, did men and women eat together, what sort of rooms did they sleep in, where did they keep their linen, what sort of houses did they have, and so on?

The end result for me was of authenticity – it all came over as real, the characters were individuals, their relationships were convincing and although Agatha Christie wasn’t happy with the ending, which she changed on Glanville’s suggestion, I thought it was fine. And just as she had pleasure in writing it I had pleasure in reading it.

Reading Challenges: Agatha Christie Reading Challenge, Mount TBR Reading ChallengeVintage Cover Scavenger Hunt for the Golden Age in the category ‘A Green Object’.