Monday, July 27, 2009

Books read in July

It's been a, ho ho, Herculean month in the ongoing Poirothon:

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, and a Selection of Entrees, Agatha Christie
So easy to forget this anthology, but I think it's more deserving of attention than, say, Murder in the Mews. The stories are of that long-short towards novella length that suits Christie so well, two more stories than in Mews (and fewer cop-outs too) and the surprise inclusion of a Marple for extra variety (although it's not a very good Marple). I think "The Under Dog" might be my favourite Christie short story - although it's not honestly a very solid story once you sit down and think it through, it reads very smoothly.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie
Stands up remarkably well, considering this was Christie's first ever novel. Perhaps it benefited from a few years' extra attention between first writing (1916) and publication (1920). Indeed, stood next to The Murder on the Links it looks very polished - you'd've said this was the second novel. She doesn't seem to have nailed down Poirot yet, though - one minute he's got a limp (supposedly), the next he's bounding around like Zebedee. His explosive outbursts and aggrieved wailing and head-clutching when revelations occur to him would also be toned down in later books, thank goodness.

Sad Cypress, Agatha Christie
A very good character-driven story, and unusually the denouement is played out in court. Not often we see Poirot in this environment. All in all it's an extremely strong story - not sure if it belongs in the very top tier of Christie, but it's certainly on the borderline.

Death on the Nile, Agatha Christie
"And the murderer iiiiiiiis..." Bang! That's how death #3 tends to be played in adaptations of this one. It isn't quite like that in the book, but it's not too far off. This is one where the victims seem especially keen to make it easier for the murderer to kill them while making the detective's life harder. It's uncanny how deaths #2 and #3 both involve an eye-witness interrupting Poirot (and his pal Colonel Race) while he's trying to talk to victim #1's husband, completely failing to come out with the important information and then getting killed. Presumably Christie found herself a hundred pages short and had to resort to this extra chicanery to make the contractual number of words.
On the other hand, what we have here is the story of the perfect murder gone wrong. It would have been watertight, except that - inevitably - one person sees the wrong thing and has to be silenced. And then someone else sees that, and they have to be silenced... And what should have been one neat crime ends up being an escalating chain of crimes, because of good old Sod's Law. On that basis, it sounds a lot better. And hey, it's got Egypt in it too. Still can't quite bring myself to give it top marks, though.

Appointment with Death, Agatha Christie
In story terms, this one ought to be the best of the Middle Eastern trio - not nearly so far-fetched as Mesopotamia or Nile. But overall it feels slightly doughy, slightly as though the colour's been turned down. The first third of the book is spent just getting us to understand that Mother Boynton is a nasty piece of work, and Poirot spends the entire final sixth explaining everything, in an unusually long wrap-up. Mother Boynton alone ought to be able to imbue the book with colour and character, but she's too much the grotesque, and of course her down-trodden kids are required to be quite characterless. In its favour, I like the way Poirot follows the chain of everyone suspecting someone else until he finally arrives at the real solution. Well, it's more or less on a par with its Middle East counterparts.

The Mystery of the Blue Train, Agatha Christie
See, here's the funny thing. Most of Christie fandom seems to agree that The Big Four, which was the first book to come out after Christie's now legendary "disappearance", is a very bad book, but people let it off lightly because of everything she was going through that year. But Blue Train is the book she was actually writing during that hard, hard year. When asked, she always cited it among the least favourite of her own books. She famously had to force out every word. And it shows, in the best possible way - it doesn't feel forced, but you can see that work's gone into it. It's a high quality Christie. The Big Four, on the other hand, rushed out to fill the publishing gap while Christie got herself together, was cobbled together from short stories published nearly three years earlier, so it was cack long before anything went wrong with her life. But I'll be mean about it in more detail when I get around to re-reading it.

A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie, Robert Barnard
At last, the reference work I've been looking for! A proper critical text, a series of essay-ish examinations of Christie's oeuvre. Barnard's happy to draw attention to Christie's shortcomings as a writer - her tendency for "off-the-shelf" characters (or character types, perhaps), her "broad stroke" approach to description, her often quite flat prose - but as he says, that's not the point of Christie's work nor the secret of her popular success. The point is the puzzle - the reader's pleasure, like that of the detective, of taking the pieces of information available and trying to work out what the complete picture is.
I can go with that. A lot of science fiction works in the same way - take the given clues about a situation and work out what's going on. Asimov's and Clarke's writings aren't a million miles away from this, and they too have a bit of a tendency to skimp on character depth and atmospheric description. But all the As You Know, Professors in the world aren't going to knock them off SF's top pedestal.
Intriguingly, Barnard also mentions the Interesting Theory about Five Little Pigs (he downplays it), and his book was published two years before Charles Osborne's. This not only gives me even less reason to spend money on my own copy of Osborne's book, it also makes me wonder who actually first suggested the theory, and when.

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, Agatha Christie
Dodgy dealings at the top of the banking industry - who'da thunk it?! It's not generally a good idea to get Christie onto the subject of politics, but here she's not too bad. In fact this might be the best of the political Poirot novels, not that it's up against much competition. The solution is completely out of a hat, though.

Hickory Dickory Dock, Agatha Christie
The second book in this month's Spurious Nursery Rhyme In The Title Double Bill is better than its reputation would suggest. The attempted foreign characters are a little regrettable, but by no means horrifying - could have been a lot worse if Christie had written it twenty or so years earlier. There's a lot going on in this novel, so it doesn't flag in the way the '60s Poirots do, and it even has a touch of atmosphere to it.
The comedy scene with the brandy bottles may have been recycled from Dumb Witness, but it's still good for a chuckle.

Hallowe'en Party, Agatha Christie
This year, I will be mostly imitating Dennis Wheatley. Christie's definitely past her best by this stage - the character work is pretty terrible (Poirot visits the bereaved mother and two young siblings a day or two after the murder to find them all nonchalantly carrying on as before, and let's not start on the Precocious Child), it's not difficult to spot the murderer, and whole chapters of the book are just extruded ramblings. Does not bode well for the even later Elephants Can Remember. I'd still say it's better than Third Girl, though.

Evil Under the Sun, Agatha Christie
Ah, much better. This one's high on the border between second tier and top rank, and what's doubly pleasing is that it made a first rate TV adaptation too. A successful combination of love triangle, crime from the past repeated with variation, and a rather original bit of jiggery-pokery. Throw in a Famous Five subplot about Cornish smugglers and you've got all the bases covered.
Amusingly, this book actually includes a scene where a policeman tastes a suspicious powdery substance. Happens all the time in TV cop shows, but I think this might be the first time I've seen it in print. I could be wrong; it may just have stuck because the policeman here actually seems to react to the drug.

Dead Man's Folly, Agatha Christie
This is practically a self-parody. The lord and lady of the country manor and their household are relics of a (by then) dead age, and I think they and Christie know it. The comedy socialist is past his best before date as well, and completely superfluous to the story throughout. Watch out for wacky rustic accents and Those Pesky Foreigners too. Worst of all, the resolution includes a double whammy of two of Christie's most infuriating plot devices - surprise bigamy and one character working two identities simultaneously right in front of everyone without anyone noticing. Still, once again I have to say it's not as bad as Third Girl. That book's definitely the low benchmark.

The Labours of Hercules, Agatha Christie
Is it an anthology or is it a novel? Perhaps we should put it in a special intermediate category with The Big Four. Considered as a whole it's varied and lively, and I can't really pick out any duff bits. Remember, kids - the longer the Christie short story, the better, and you certainly get your money's worth (or in my case, my library reservation fee's worth) with this one. The prince of Christie anthologies.
It is slightly amusing to see Poirot planning his retirement to grow vegetable marrows, since he already tried this back in the '20s and swore never to do it again. But perhaps we can write this detail off as it was only bolted on in the all-new prologue when the stories were collected. Or perhaps this is the crime fiction equivalent of those reboots Marvel and DC superhero comics go through every couple of decades?


Lis J said...

I have, as you know, read the odd Christie myself; by the time I've finished one I can barely remember how it began. I am deeply impressed (and humbled, as a fellow book reviewer) that you can turn in a month's worth of such pithy and intelligent comment. Subtext: damn you, Toon.

John Toon said...

Well, I sometimes make notes.