Saturday, October 30, 2010

CBRII: How much Agatha Christie can a woman read?

A lot, as it turns out. There’s this ‘antiques shop’ that a friend put us onto. It’s basically a trash and treasure market, for antiques and collectables, housed in a warehouse easily as old as what you’ll find inside it. The first time we went, parts of the roof were falling off and banging against other parts of the roof. There’s a few better spots, but the majority sell their stuff from beneath carefully-erected tarpaulins. For somebody as curious as me, the best part is that the sellers aren’t there. You want to buy something, you take it to the front counter, and the employees handle the rest. Otherwise you can poke, comment and explore to your heart’s content, without feeling obligated to buy that antique breast pump you just sent a picture of to your pregnant friend.

Annnyway, the point of this ridiculously long digression is that, at this decrepit factory of wonders, I came across the entire collection of Agatha Christie novels. This filled me with joy. Eventually, this also filled a shelf of my bookcase.

In the last few weeks, I’ve developed a habit of grabbing a book at random on my way to work. Each book has three of her novels, so I’m going to be well entertained, even if some element of the train system decides it just can’t be fucked working today (unfortunately, this happens semi-regularly, except in the case of the new ticket system, which has yet to work properly on any day).

Hence, I’ve ripped through five of them in three weeks. Onto the reviews!

The Listerdale Mystery.

This is a collection of short stories by Christie, and it becomes quite apparent that she’s just a touch classist. It never quite reaches the level of ‘The higher class are better than the lower class’, but she’s clearly on their side. The Listerdale mystery of the title involves a ‘gentlewoman’ who, along with her children, has fallen on hard times. I enjoyed the story very much – Christie creates a very fairytale atmosphere for this one – but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel an overwhelming urge to tell that woman to just grow up and get a job already. The idea that we should pity people who are too proud to get their hands dirty goes against everything I’ve been brought up to believe, but then, I’m no gentlewoman.

There’s a few other stories in here that echo that idea, if only lightly. Pampered, trust-fund babies get the silver spoon yanked unceremoniously out, but luck is on their side, and they find themselves a golden spoon instead. Initially, this grated, then I remembered these were written in the 1930’s. No, I’m not saying we should make allowances for the time, but rather that, for this time, the stories of the gentry class getting into and out of trouble would be the equivalent of a modern story about, say, a model or fashion reporter getting into and out of trouble. It’s part fantasy, part the author writing what they know. So these sort of stories are just Agatha Christie’s version of chick lit – if I had time to research, I suspect I’d learn some of the tales were originally published in magazines.

Come to think of it, several of these stories, despite being written from a man’s perspective, are ultimately about romance and (in one case) rubbing some snobby twit’s nose in it.

Wow. It’s all chick lit.

At Betram’s hotel.

Miss Marple’s wonderful nephew wants to give her a holiday. Somewhat hesitantly, she asks to stay at Betram’s hotel in London. As a seventeen year old, she spent some time there, and she liked the idea of a week or wandering around, seeing how much everything has changed.

However, while the rest of London certainly has, Betram’s hotel is exactly the same. A few minor changes have been made to accommodate modern amenities, but Afternoon Tea is still the same gentile affair it was seventy years ago, and even the servants are all bright eyed ex-country girls.

But not everything is as lovely as it seems. A crime syndicate is keeping the London police busy, particularly Chief-Inspector Davy (nicknamed ‘Father’). An absent-minded clergyman goes missing. A scandalous woman and her daughter, not so much long-lost, as long-ago-left-behind are both involved with the same man. Then, of course, somebody dies. How this all ties together is a hell of a story.

Christie is a snarky wench. I say that with nothing but love, I really do. Just when I was realising that I’d absolutely hate to live anywhere near Miss Marple, because I’d probably end up kicking her in the face like in Hot Fuzz, there’s a delightful scene that tells me Christie probably would too.

Miss Marple tells Father that she can’t abide interference, that there’s one thing she refuse to do, and that is to interfere with other people’s business. Yes. Miss Marple, the high fricken queen of interference. Ironically, he later describes her as thus: ‘She’s had a long life of experience in noticing evil, fancying evil, suspecting evil and going forth to do battle with evil.’ For all her very decent qualities, she’s still as much a victim to the same self-blindness as many of the people she spends so much time ‘noticing evil’ within. As a character, she’s brilliant.

But I’d still probably end up fly-kicking her in the face. Clearly, I’m evil.

They Do It With Mirrors.

Miss Marple again. Carrie Louise, an old friend, is as sweet and innocent as she is wealthy. She’s got multiple relatives hanging off her, as well as a husband so passionate about the rehabilitation of teenage delinquents that he’s turned their home into a kind of prison alternative, all acting classes and psychologists (I have always had a soft spot for the term ‘delinquents’, ever since it was used as the title of a movie starring Kylie Minogue when she put actress ahead of singer on her resume).

Carrie Lousie’s sister, Ruth, after a long, gossipy review of Carrie-Louise’s life, tells Marple that something isn’t right at Stonygates, something she only senses, and begs their old friend to go down there and ferret out what it is.

I’m too lazy right now to even bother going through all the players in this particular story. Seriously, the family tree practically requires a flow diagram. Let’s just say there were a lot of marriages and people running off with their foreign women and adoptions and a fuck-ton of money, okay? And now Stonygates is just stuffed with these random relatives, who, it appears, all absolutely adore Carrie Louise. And oddly, for a Christie novel, it’s sincere and deserved. Which is why it’s so surprising that somebody is poisoning her. Then to further complicate matters, the brother of Carrie Lousie’s first husband shows up and is promptly murdered.

Some bits of this complicated plot, I guessed. But I’ll admit, I had no idea how it all fitted in. I liked it a lot, but it’s not actually my favourite of the books I’ve read. I’m reviewing that one later.

Mrs McGinty’s Dead.

Poirot! And if nothing else, I’ve learned the poor man would just die if he ever had to live at my place. So it’s fortunate that he’s a fictional character and will thus never be exposed to the barely-controlled chaos that is my existence.

Inspector Poirot is approached by a police officer whom he once investigated a case with. After some idle gossip (and a cute reference to Poirot’s failed retirement growing vegetables, which was the setting of the murder of roger Ackroyd, which I started reading, but didn’t finish), the officer explains the purpose of his visit. About a year ago, Mrs McGinty was murdered and her tenant was arrested. But the officer’s gut is telling him that said tenant isn’t guilty, just basically an idiot who’s always giving the worst possible impression of himself. The officer is planning to retire soon, and Poirot takes on the job, simply because he knows the uncertainty will eat at his friend.

Seriously, do you think Christie planned the throw-away lines that end up being the case-breakers, or do you think they just flowed organically as part of the story? I’m fascinated by the writing process, but no more so with mysteries. Do they start out with the Who and the Why and the What, or are those details uncovered, like some kind of seriously messed up stonework, as the story progresses?

One little line! That’s the key to this one. I didn’t even register the damn thing at the time, I had to go back and re-read it!

In other words, Christie Pwd me yet again.

Partners in Crime.

When one of my earlier reviews of Christie ended up on Pajiba, there were repeated recommendations for the Tommy and Tuppence books.

I get it. Oh yes, I get it so much.

Partners in Crime is a short story collection with an overriding theme, a bit like how Veronica Mars solved a weekly mystery while still trying to figure out who murdered her best friend. In this case, a vast international ring of spies/criminals/generally unpleasant people are using a certain detective Agency to conduct their business. Tommy (with Tuppence’s help) has been asked to pretend to be the detective, and help the Department track down the bad guys.

Because these two are forever playing games, they decide to investigate each crime in the manner of a different fictional detective. Sherlock Holmes, Tornley Colton, even Poirot gets a spin. Embarrassingly, I didn’t recognise half their inspirations, but I’ll be heading to the library soon to get to know them!

This is my favourite of the five. Tommy and Tuppence are adorable. They’re utterly ridiculous, but somehow, those silly quirks really work for them, and it works brilliantly in the setting of these short mysteries (some of which I solved before they did –I scared the hell out of the cat by shouting ‘She’s a TWIN!’ in the middle of one story).

So, to all those people who recommended Tommy and Tuppence – Thank you.

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