The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries: The Most Complete Collection of Yuletide Whodunits Ever Assembled

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries:The Most Complete Collection of Yuletide Whodunits Ever Assembled edited by Otto Penzler is just the book to read at this time of year if, like me, you enjoy mystery fiction with a Christmas theme. It is a big book of 647 pages – so I have an e-book version and dip into into it each Christmas.

It contains stories by a variety of authors including Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Ellis Peters, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Edgar Wallace, Peter Lovesey, Peter Robinson, Ed McBain, Sarah Paretsky, Mary Higgins Clark, Ngaio Marsh, Isaac Asimov, G K Chesterton, H R F Keating, Robert Louis Stevenson and more.

Rumpole and the Spirit of Christmas by  John Mortimer is one of the stories in the section ‘A Funny Little Christmas’. In it Rumpole is at the Old Bailey defending Edward Timson, the youngest member of the huge south London family of criminals, charged with wilful murder. It’s Christmas and Eddie tells Rumpole his mum wants him hone for Christmas – but Rumpole wonders ‘which Christmas?

Will he make it? The evidence against him is strong. It all began when a war broke out between the Timsons and the O’Dowds when Bridget O’Dowd was chosen to play the role of Mary in the school nativity play and Eddie said she was ‘a spotty little tart unsuited to play any role of which the most notable characteristic was virginity‘. The resulting battle ended with the death of Kevin O’Dowd.

Rumpole is his usual grumpy self, getting drunk on wine in Pommeroy’s Wine Bar with the prosecuting barrister, Wrigglesworth, instead of hurrying home to his wife, Hilda (She Who Must be Obeyed) who has made him rissoles and frozen peas for his dinner. As I read it I could easily imagine the scenes, with Leo McKern playing the role of Rumpole.

Agatha Christie has two stories in the collection – the first is The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding in which Hercule Poirot investigates the theft of a priceless ruby stolen from a Far Eastern prince. The Christmas Pudding in question is a ‘large football of a pudding, a piece of holly stuck in it and glorious flames of blue and red rising round it’  and the second A Christmas Tragedy, a little puzzle of a mystery. Miss Marple tells the story of the death of Mrs Sanders and how it it had been made to look an accident when it was really a cold-blooded murder. I can’t see any connection in this story to Christmas, but it is definitely a tragedy and for a short story it is very complicated.

There are no stories by Charles Dickens in this collection but Morse’s Greatest Mystery by Colin Dexter begins with a quotation from A Christmas Carol, when Lewis knocks on the door of Morse’s North Oxford flat and Morse greets him whilst shouting down the phone to his bank manager. Like Scrooge Morse doesn’t like Christmas! This story is about the theft of a donation of £400 pounds to a charity for Mentally Handicapped Children the patrons of the George pub. Morse has to follow a series of clues to solve the mystery – and by the end he becomes more like the Christmas Scrooge …

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As this is my last post before Christmas I wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy Reading! 

Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death, set in the Middle East was first published in 1938 after her final pre-war visit to the area. It seemed right to read this book straight after I’d finished reading Come, Tell Me How You Live in which Agatha Christie wrote about her life on archaeological expeditions in Syria with her husband Max Mallowan.

The novel begins in Jerusalem where the Boyton family are sightseeing. There are two stepsons, one is married, a daughter and a step daughter. Mrs Boynton is a malignant and malicious tyrant who enjoyed exercising her power over her family, who all hated and yet obeyed her. Dr Gerard, a French psychologist, also a tourist remarks that

… she rejoices in the infliction of pain – mental pain, mind you, not physical. That is very much rarer and very much more difficult to deal with. She likes to have control of other human beings and she likes to make them suffer.

The Boyntons and Dr Gerard travel on through the Judean desert to Petra. Also in the group are Jonathan Cope, a family friend, Sarah King, a newly qualified doctor, Lady Westholme, a member of Parliament and Miss Annabel Pierce, a former nursery governess. The beginning of the book is taken up with relating their journey to Petra and the complicated relationships between the characters. It comes to a climax when Mrs Boynton is found dead.

The remainder of the book covers the investigation into her death. Colonel Carbury is in charge and although it appears that Mrs Boynton, who suffered from heart trouble had died overcome by the heat and strain of travelling, he is not satisfied and he has an idea that the family killed her. He enlists the help of Hercule Poirot, who was also in Jerusalem at the same time as the Boyntons and had overheard part of a conversation, ‘You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed.’ He was sure he would recognise that voice again – and he did.

Poirot is his usual confident (arrogant) self, convinced he can solve the mystery and he does through questions, analysis and psychological reasoning. I didn’t work it out myself though.

This is a quick, easy read, with a lot of dialogue in a relatively short book (less than 200 pages). I enjoyed it, although it’s not one of my favourite Agatha Christie books.

I’m including it in Bev’s Color Coded Challenge as the main colour of the cover of my copy is brown. It’s one of the remaining few novels I have left to read for Kerrie’s Agatha Christie Reading Challenge.

First Chapter First Paragraph: Appointment with Death

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

My choice this week is Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie, one of the few novels of hers that I haven’t read. It’s one of the earlier Poirot books, first published in 1938. It begins:

‘You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?’

The question floated out into the still night air, seemed to hang there a moment and then drift away down into  the darkness towards the Dead Sea.

Hercule Poirot paused a minute with his hand on the window catch. Frowning, he shut it decisively, thereby excluding any injurious night air! Hercule Poirot had been brought up to believe that all outside air was best left outside, and that night air was especially dangerous to the health.

Of course, this has me wondering who ‘she’ is, why she has to be killed and who is talking.

I don’t remember reading before about Poirot’s upbringing – intriguing to think of him as a child!

 

Poirot and Me by David Suchet and Geoffrey Wansell

Prologue

It is a damp, chill Friday morning in November and I am feeling old, very old; so old, indeed, that I am on the brink of death. I have lost two stone in weight, my face is the colour of aged parchment, and my hands are gnarled  like human claws.

I must have watched nearly all, if not all, of David Suchet’s performances as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. For me he was the perfect Poirot, so it was a given that I would read his autobiography, Poirot and Me, written with the help of his friend Geoffrey Wansell. And it really lives up to its title, as the main subject is David Suchet’s role as Poirot. His first performance as Poirot was in 1988. Over the intervening twenty five years he played the part in every one of the seventy Poirot stories that Agatha Christie wrote, with the exception of a tiny short story called The Lemesurier Inheritance (a story in Poirot’s Early Cases and in The Under Dog).

When I started watching the TV dramas it had been years since I’d read any of Agatha Christie’s books and I wasn’t aware that the early shows were based on her short stories – actually I didn’t even know then that she had written any short stories at all. I’ve read nearly all of her full length novels, but only a few of her short stories so far.

I think Poirot and Me may not appeal to people who are not readers of Agatha Christie’s books as it consists largely of Suchet’s summaries of the stories and how he went about analysing Poirot’s character and how he played the part. He began by compiling a list of Poirot’s characteristics, then considering his voice and his appearance. He made 92 ‘character points’ and his original list is reproduced in the book, along with photos of locations, the cast and crew.

He was most concerned that his portrayal of Poirot should be faithful to the character that Agatha Christie had created. He immersed himself so completely in the character that at times he didn’t know where Poirot ended and he began! Even so, some of the dramatisations are not strictly faithful to the original stories, for various reasons; additional characters are included and some of the plots are expanded versions, especially where the original short stories were slight. Or, for example, as in the case of the collection of short stories that make up The Twelve Labours of Hercules, the stories are so diverse that the screenwriter created an almost entirely new story, though using some of the characters.

At the end of each of the Poirot series, David Suchet didn’t know if any more were in the pipeline and he continued to play other parts in film,  on TV and on the stage. I found this just as interesting as the sections on his role as Poirot and it emphasises his qualities as an actor –  he is a ‘character’ actor, a Shakespearean actor and with the exception of Poirot his roles have been pretty dark and menacing parts. I particularly remember him in Blott on the Landscape, in which he played the malevolent gardener and in The Way We Live Now as the sinister financier Melmotte.

He thinks the charm of the Poirot stories is that

… they reveal a world where manners and morals are quite different from today. There are no overt or unnecessary sex scenes, no alcoholic, haunted detectives in Poirot’s world. He lives in a simpler, some would say more human, era; a lost England, seen through the admiring eyes of this foreigner, this little Belgian detective. For me, that makes the stories all the more appealing, for although the days he lives in seem far away, they are all the more enchanting because of it. (page 64 in the hardback edition)

I think so too – and I think the same charm and appeal can be found in the Miss Marple stories.

David Suchet wrote that when Hercule Poirot died on that late November afternoon in 2012 (as he filmed Curtain) a part of him died, but for me and doubtless for many others, Poirot lives on not just in Agatha Christie’s stories but also in David Suchet’s wonderful performances as his ‘cher ami‘, Hercule Poirot.

  • Hardcover: 320 pages (also available in paperback and on Kindle)
  • Publisher: Headline; 1st edition (7 Nov. 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0755364198
  • ISBN-13: 978-0755364190
  • Source: my local library

Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie

Three Act Tragedy 001

I’ve been working my way through Agatha Christie’s books over the past few years and I have just a few left to read. Three Act Tragedy is one of them. It was first published in 1935 (as Murder in Three Acts in America).

As the title indicates the book is divided into three acts, or rather parts, First Act – Suspicion, Second Act – Certainty and Third Act – Discovery. It begins as though it were a theatre programme:

Directed by

SIR CHARLES CARTWRIGHT

Assistant Directors
MR SATTERTHWAITE
MISS HERMIONE LYTTON GORE

Clothes by
AMBROSINE LTD

Illumination by
HERCULE POIROT

Summary from the back cover:

Sir Charles Cartwright, the distinguished actor, was giving a party. Around him his guests stood talking and drinking. The Reverend Stephen Babbington sipped his cocktail and pulled a wry face. the chatter continued all around. Suddenly Mr Babbington clutched at his throat and swayed …

The beginning of the drama …

Sir Charles suspects that Mr Babbington was murdered but Hercule Poirot, one of the guests, disagrees and there is nothing to show that his death was by any other than natural causes and besides who could possible have cause to kill him! However, later when Sir Bartholomew Strange, a distinguished Harley Street doctor who was also a guest at Sir Charles’ party, drops dead after sipping a glass of port at another party with some of the original guests, it becomes clear that this is murder by poisoning.

This is one of those cases where Poirot plays a secondary role, preferring to think rather than act and it is Mr Satterthwaite and Sir Charles who investigate the deaths. Mr Satterthwaite is an interesting character – ‘ a  dried-up little pipkin of a man’, ‘ a patron of art and drama, a determined but pleasant snob’ and ‘a man of considerable intelligence and a very shrewd observer of people and things.’ An ideal partner in investigation for Poirot.

(This is Mr Satterthwaite’s first appearance outside a Harley Quin story – I have yet to read the Harley Quin stories.)

As for the other characters, some fade into the background, whilst others like Sir Charles and Hermione Lytton Gore, known affectionately as Egg are in the spotlight. This is one of Agatha Christie’s earlier books and is full of baffling clues, conjuring tricks, clues concealed in conversations, with larger than life personalities, and above all with puzzles to be solved. I really enjoyed it.

In this book Hercule Poirot reveals a little of his history, coming from a large and poor family he had worked hard in the Belgian police force, made a name for himself and an international reputation. He was injured in the First World War and came to England as a refugee, eventually becoming a private inquiry agent. He displays his usual vanity and egotism when talking to Mr Satterthwaite, who had realised that he might have accidentally have drunk the poisoned cocktail, by saying:

‘There is an even more terrible possibility that you have not considered. … It might have been ME.

Hallowe'en Party by Agatha Christie

Hallowe’en Party begins with the party given by Mrs Drake for teenagers. One of the guests, Joyce Reynolds, a boastful thirteen-year old, who likes to draw attention to herself, announces that once she’d witnessed a murder. It seems nobody believed her and yet later on she is found dead, drowned in the tub used for the bobbing for apples game – someone had believed her and had killed her. Mrs Ariadne Oliver was at the party and she asks Poirot to help in finding the murderer.

This is one of Agatha Christie’s later books, first published in 1969, when she was approaching 80, and although I did like it for the most part, it is certainly not one of her best. It’s not terribly coherent and it lacks focus in parts as several characters, not sharply defined, are introduced along with a lot of detail and repetition. The plot, as usual in Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries is convoluted with lots of red herrings and loose ends. I thought the revelation of one of the character’s parenthood at the end was just too contrived to be believable. There are meandering and critical conversations about the ‘young people today’ and the state of the mental health service, with overcrowded mental homes, which so many of the characters thought must be the cause of the murder.

… so doctors say “Let him of her lead a normal life. Go back and live with his relatives, etc. And then the nasty bit of goods, or the poor afflicted fellow, whichever way you like to look at it, gets the urge again and another young woman goes out walking and is found in a gravel pit, or is silly enough to take lifts in a car. (page 37)

So it is down to Poirot to discover the real motive, but not before there is another murder. He investigates the possibility that Joyce was telling the truth and asks retired Superintendent Spence, living in the area with his sister, for details of any local deaths and disappearances over the past few years.

Even though I found this book less satisfying than many of Christie’s other books there are things in it that I liked. The relationship between Ariadne Oliver and Poirot for one – Poirot has to have a sip of brandy to fortify himself for the ‘ordeal’ of talking to her:

‘It’s a pity,’ he murmured to himself, ‘that she is so scatty. And yet she has originality of mind. It could be that I am going to enjoy what she is coming to tell me. It could be -‘ he reflected a minute ‘- that it may take a great deal of the evening and that it will all be excessively foolish. Eh bien, one must take one’s risks in life.’ (page 20)

And for another there is the description of a beautiful garden in a sunken quarry,  a well designed garden with the appearance of being perfectly natural. There are several pages lyrically describing this garden, which seemed to me to reflect Agatha Christie’s own interest in gardens, particularly the gardens at her house in Devon, Greenway. Seeing this garden sends Poirot into an almost mystical state of mind as he absorbed the atmosphere:

It had qualities  of magic, of enchantment, certainly of beauty, bashful beauty, yet wild. Here, if you were staging a scene in the theatre, you would have your nymphs, your fauns, you would have Greek beauty, you would have fear too. Yes, he thought, in this sunk garden there is fear. (page 93)

Overall, there are some vivid descriptions in this book – the Hallowe’en party and some of the descriptions of the teenagers ’60s style clothing for example as well as the beauty of the sunken garden, which for me compensated for its flaws. But if you haven’t read any of Agatha Christie’s books I wouldn’t recommend that you start with this one.

The Big Four by Agatha Christie

I’ve read a lot of Agatha Christie’s books, most of which I’ve really enjoyed, but I’m not too keen on her books that involve spies and gangs of international criminals who are seeking world domination. And The Big Four, first published in 1927, is one of those books.

Basically it’s a collection of short stories (derived from a series of stories that first appeared in The Sketch, a weekly magazine) in which Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings lock forces with a vast organisation of crime led by four individuals, in the course of which they uncover the identity of the ‘Big Four’. The aim of the Four is ‘to destroy the existing social order, and to replace it with an anarchy in which they would reign as dictators.’  They are a Chinese man, Li Chang Yen, an American multi-millionaire, a French woman and ‘the Destroyer’, an Englishman. Poirot is convinced that they are behind everything:

The world-wide unrest, the labour troubles that beset every nation, and the revolutions that break out in some. There are people, not scaremongers, who know what they are talking about, and they say that there is a force behind the scenes which aims at nothing less than the destruction of civilisation. (page 25)

In the course of their investigations Poirot and Hastings find themselves in many dangerous  situations, all melodramatic and a little far-fetched, from which they miraculously escape certain death. The Big Four is action packed, with Poirot uncharacteristically chasing off after the criminals, still using his ‘little grey cells’ of course, whilst Hastings is knocked out and kidnapped, and Li Chang Yen threatens to abduct and torture Hasting’s wife, whom he had left behind in their ranch in the Argentine.

This is not one of my favourite Agatha Christie books. But perhaps it is not so surprising that The Big Four is far from her best. It was in  December 1926 that Agatha Christie disappeared after her husband, Archie Christie had told her he wanted a divorce and in 1927 she was still recovering from this. It was her brother-in-law’s suggestion that the last Poirot short stories she had published could be re-written to ‘have the appearance of a book‘ as a ‘stop-gap‘ – and the result was The Big Four, which, I think, suffers from being a loosely connected collection of episodes. Agatha explained in her Autobiography that Campbell Christie had helped her with linking the short stories as she was ‘unable to tackle anything of the kind.‘ (Autobiography page 365)