Monday, June 29, 2009

Books read in June

Lord Edgware Dies, Agatha Christie
Dammit, James Blunt's been at it again! First I find him in Richard III, and now here he is on the guest list to Sir Montagu Corner's dinner party. Damn your fictional antics, Blunt!
Another high second-ranker. It's extremely easy to guess the identity and method of the killer - even more so than in Three Act Tragedy - and working out the motive is only a matter of time, but this book scores with its engaging prose and lively story. Amusingly, this must be the only Christie novel that ITV made less licentious when they adapted it - Lord Edgware's legendary cruelty clearly extends into rooms other than his study, as his proudly displayed collection of de Sade books suggests, not to mention the fact that he picked up his effete butler in a dodgy nightclub. Not a hint of it in the Suchet adaptation. They couldn't even allow themselves to cast the butler that way.

Dumb Witness, Agatha Christie
This book is (in)famous for its cutesy dog "dialogue", and I can now reveal that it's almost as trying as people say. Almost, but not quite. There's much to recommend it, not least the little side jokes and the light relief of Market Basing's "hearty old woman" character. And Poirot's harsh yet compassionate handling of the denouement makes a refreshing change from the all too familiar everyone-in-the-parlour ending. High third tier, perhaps.

Death in the Clouds, Agatha Christie
So, here's another story that relies heavily on a favourite social truism of Christie's... does nobody ever simply look up and make eye contact at the wrong moment? Still, it's a lively story, and it's nice to see the old Train Murder concept transferred to the modern airliner (is this the only example in crime fiction? not aware of any others). Another high second-tier story.
Also contains my favourite instance of casual racism in all the Christies I've read so far, when the two romantic leads bond over their mutual dislike for "negroes". Well, it was the 1930s, you've got to make allowances, etc etc.

Peril at End House, Agatha Christie
Perhaps a slightly lower rating for this one. It chunters along fairly happily, and then all the revelations just kind of tumble out at the end, probable and improbable alike, as though someone had opened an overstuffed overhead locker. It's also pretty hard by this stage in the Poirothon not to spot when the murderer fulfils one or more of the Suspicious Criteria, and the murderer here doesn't do it by halves. At the time of publication it may have been a different story, but now... Still, it's a good middler.

Poirot's Early Cases, Agatha Christie
I don't think Christie's quite as good in ten or fifteen pages as she is over the length of a novel. It's not so much that a crime story as short as these has to be nearly all puzzle and little else; it's rather that Christie's puzzles benefit from the leisurely build-up and resolution that a novel affords. That said, there's enough variety to make it possible to read this collection over a couple of days - a few murders, a few thefts, two fireside stories told by Poirot to Hastings, and even some of Poirot's Late Early Cases from the 1930s.

Third Girl, Agatha Christie
Stodgy, very stodgy. It's something like five sixths of the way into the book before we're even sure that there's anything to investigate; in the meantime, Poirot has spent pretty much all of his time having no clues and bemoaning, at great length, the fact that he has no clues. When we do get there, though, things more or less come together. Perhaps the greatest asset the plot has in terms of misdirection is the reader's absolute certainty that Christie, notorious Daily Mail reader that she is, won't be able to resist turning the denouement into a tirade against drug culture - pleasingly, she does something more interesting.
There is, however, plenty of hippie action, and of 1960s atmosphere in general. Whoever it was who said that Christie's work is timeless can't have been paying much attention. There's also what looks suspiciously like a theme, that of coincidence - on the face of it, it's just lazy for Ariadne Oliver to magically land the various bits of information she passes on to Poirot, but when Poirot takes two pages out to lecture on the subject of coincidence, it all starts to look a bit more significant. Perhaps Christie was aiming for something a bit artier than mere thrillers at this stage of her career. Which is a bit of a shame when most of us lot are just after thrillers.

The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie, Charles Osborne
This month's reference book is quite a bit more substantial than last month's - Osborne combines story synopses, brief opinions, occasional insights and plenty of background detail into a book-by-book biography of Christie. It's interesting, although not quite as perfect as it thinks it is - Osborne spends a couple of footnotes, apparently without irony, taking down his fellow critical writers for mistakes in their works, then goes and claims that Poirot appears in A Pocket Full of Rye (Marple), or crows about a supposed flaw in The Murder on the Links that's entirely due to his own misreading. Let's just say it's unfortunate. Maybe the paperback edition included corrections, but sadly I'm not able to check. Still 'n' all, a good read, and he has a very compelling theory about the writing of Five Little Pigs that I might relate when I get round to reading the book.

The Hollow Man, John Dickson Carr
Just to keep things interesting, a non-Christie. This is apparently the greatest locked room mystery of them all. It's highly readable, and goes all-out to present an apparently supernatural murder. I'm tempted to describe the solution as absurd, but it does all add up. I'm not quite sure whether it's supposed to be set in the 1930s, when it was written - it comes across as entirely Victorian. What the lecture-chapter on locked room mysteries has to do with any of it I don't know, although I suspect it's there purely to cushion the reader against the more absurd elements of the denouement - can't be a good sign when a character makes a direct appeal to the reader to suspend their disbelief. Still, it might be worth reading more of Carr's work.

1 comment:

Christopher Pittard said...

"Might be worth reading more of Carr's work..." ACHTUNG! Wildly variable quality alert! From *The Hollow Man*, I'd go for something along the lines of *The Emperor's Snuff Box* (although I did work that one out), *The Crooked Hinge* and novels as Carter Dickson such as *She Died a Lady* and *The Judas Window.* *Hag's Nook*, in which he introduces his detective G. K. Chester- sorry, Dr Gideon Fell - is OK. Avoid *Death-Watch* (who are these people? What the hell is going on?) and the notoriously poor *The House at Satan's Elbow,* (fantastic title, but the worst expositionary dialogue ever scrawled). The solution to *The Problem of the Wire Cage* is truly ludicrous. There are a couple of good online bibliographies to guide you through the maze safely enough...

The other problem, of course, is getting hold of them - my own collection has been built up over the years (and with a bit of cheating on abebooks). Although for some strange reason the second hand bookshops in Sacramento, California are a particularly rich source... he got a lot more reprintage in the US than over here...