Sunday, August 30, 2009

Books read in August

The Hollow, Agatha Christie
If Dead Man's Folly is the Christie auto-parody, this is the inside-out Christie. Agatha Christie's Poirot, first inversion. Of all the second-tier Christies, this is probably the one that most deserves to make it onto my top list. Oh, and Gudgeon - Best Butler Ever.

After the Funeral, Agatha Christie
Pretty good post-war Poirot. There are those who say that Christie's golden age ended with the Second World War, but I'm starting to think she was good for a clear decade after that, with Hickory Dickory Dock marking the tipping point and Folly the real beginning of the end.

Poirot Investigates, Agatha Christie
I've commented before on Christie's short stories; I don't think there are any here that weren't improved by being adapted to the fifty minute TV format.

Taken at the Flood, Agatha Christie
Musical deaths - which ones are murders, which suicides? This is really Christie trying too hard and being too smart for her readers' good, but it certainly deserves some recognition for that. Took a fairly hefty rewriting in the TV series, not least because the catalytic event for the story is a WW2 air raid, and the TV series is still resolutely clinging to the '30s.

Cat Among the Pigeons, Agatha Christie
Readers may insert what comments about Poirot in a girls' boarding school they consider appropriate. The TV series tried to spice things up by changing the murder weapon from a common or garden handgun to a javelin, but it couldn't entirely carry it off. The most intriguing thing in the book is that Christie seems to think that Candide (and it quite definitely is Voltaire's Candide) is pornography. I may have to reread Candide to try to work this one out. Of course, it could simply be that Christie took the title the wrong way.

The Big Four, Agatha Christie
Irredeemable. Poirot finds himself in the middle of one of Christie's Daily-Mail-on-speed political thrillers. The villains might best be thought of as Fu Manchu, Evil Marie Curie, Evil Rockefeller and the blandest available member of the RSC. This started life as a series of short stories, and apparently didn't take much reworking when it was turned into a novel, so we can assume that readers in 1924 were treated to week after week of Poirot accusing a shadowy conspiracy of crimes he'd failed to solve. In the real world we'd call that paranoia, or the next Dan Brown blockbuster. It can't have been that thrilling at the time. It isn't now, to be honest. My hope for the TV adaptation, when it comes, is that either they do it as a surreal nightmare (Massive Opportunity For German Expressionism!) or they do it as the sexed-up version of events presented by Hastings when he came to write it up. In any case, good luck, ITV adapters.

Black Coffee, Charles Osborne (based on a play by Agatha Christie)
Reconstituted Christie product. I was prepared to allow that Christie herself might have included the verbatim cut-and-pastes from her novels in the original script, until I saw the speech lifted straight out of After the Funeral, a book published more than two decades after the play was written. Osborne's also made far too much of an effort to tie down the chronology of the story, in relation to real world events and to other books - far more of an effort than Christie ever did - and made a bit of a hash of it. The story itself is light - probably well suited to an evening's theatre, not quite so promising as a book - and tragically includes the old "I'm going to turn the lights off and when I turn them back on..." schtick. It's Christie-flavoured rather than full fat Christie.
What I don't understand is why it's been included in the last few reprints of the Christie canon, with Christie's name on the cover. This feels a bit weird to me.

Elephants Can Remember
, Agatha Christie
The last Poirot novel Christie actually wrote (Curtain having been locked in a vault some thirty years earlier). I suppose the best way to describe it is that it's like Five Little Pigs, but with no life in it. Nothing happens in the present day except for the detective(s) getting half-remembered testimony out of the witnesses, the case itself is cold and (re)solving it won't help or please anyone except the offspring of the victim and apparent murderer - but there's an unbridgeable gulf in style between Pigs and Elephants. Pigs oozes character and emotion; Elephants just feels like Samuel Beckett, but without the wit.

Autobiography, Agatha Christie
Lively and conversational, this book really only covers Christie's life up to the 1930s. The '40s, '50s and '60s are covered almost as an afterthought; you're halfway through before Christie's even got as far as Roger Ackroyd. And anyone hoping for insights relating to her work will be disappointed - this really is strictly biographical. Worth a read, for all that.

Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie
And so at last we've exhausted the library Christies, and we're onto the titles in the personal collection. There's no denying it - I like the tricksy Christies. The gimmicky ones, the ones that contemporary reviewers considered "cheating" - they're the ones for me. They've lasted the years precisely because of their tricksy gimmicks. But it also strikes me, rereading Orient Express now, that even as mere prose it's a step above its fellows. It's as if Christie knew this one would last and upped her game accordingly. I don't know why, it just shines that bit brighter. And once you know the ending, you can spot the groundwork being laid for it, in cheeky asides as well as clues, and I feel that that helps too. I've said it before and I'll continue to say it - no book should rely exclusively on a "surprise" ending. This is a detective novel that rewards repeat readings.

Five Little Pigs, Agatha Christie
So, the Interesting Theory. This book was written sixteen years after Christie's bust-up with her first husband and her famous disappearance, and concerns a husband-and-wife murder that took place sixteen years earlier. Some critics regard this as significant, and once you've had it pointed out to you you can read what you like into the martyred wife, the unpleasant and ultimately unsatisfied mistress, the husband with the initials AC (Archie Christie). Taken at face value, it's an engrossing in-depth examination of the five characters at the heart of the case, and (even after reading the other "crime in the past" novels first) still better by far than any other Christie of the type. But there is an emotional depth to the novel, and it's tempting to think that Christie was working something out of her system here. Of course, we'll never know for sure because (qv above) she never said.

The Fantastic Four: True Story, Paul Cornell
Part of the comic book mayhem that seized us while in Glasgow last weekend. The Fantastic Four venture into the world of fiction; literary hi-jinks ensue. Jasper Fforde is, naturally, referenced, because it's taken as a given nowadays that anything of the sort must owe him its inspiration. Worth a look for the "Reader, I clobbered him" chapter if nothing else.

Captain Britain and MI13 vol. 2, Paul Cornell
Interesting. Hard to take seriously if you know who Dr Plokta is, mind you. However, vol.3 looks mind-blowing - apparently Count Dracula's got a castle on the Moon, and this is about to figure in some way in the story of MI13. I suspect Dracula's moonbase has been covered in some previous (unknown to me) Marvel publication and that this is, therefore, going to be no different from the endless reappearances of Dr Doom or the Green Goblin in other Marvel publications, but to me in my ignorance it looks exciting. This may be one occasion on which I benefit from not being a big Marvel reader.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century, vol. 1, Alan Moore
The Threepenny Opera rejigged League-style. This feels like a prologue rather than a part of something - of course it does chronologically precede The Black Dossier, but it doesn't tie into that at all, so it's hard to see exactly what it's paving the way for. Two more volumes (of around 90 pages) to follow - hopefully the other two will feel more substantial. This is fun (of a kind), but not very satisfying.

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