Sunday, 15 September 2019

Mrs McGinty's Dead by Agatha Christie

I recently wrote about a superior Poirot novel, and began to get interested in which of  his adventures represent the cream of the crop.

As it happens, the next one I picked up, Mrs McGinty's Dead, the 30th in the series, published in 1952, also qualifies for the top ranking.

The story begins by drawing a more thorough portrait of Poirot, and his inner world, than is usual.The great detective is bored and in need of a challenge. As it happens, one is on its way...

In the shape of a cop who is sure that an innocent man is facing the gallows. The condemned man is James Bentley, and he was the lodger of one Mrs McGinty, an old woman who was brutally murdered.

Mrs McGinty was a char woman — a woman who cleans people's houses — in a small village called Broadhinny. And the notion of a sleepy, idyllic English village is dismissed very early in the book.

Superintendent Spence, the cop, says, "Our villages... aren't friendly... Evacuees found that during the war." I imagine Christie had in mind here the savage true life case which inspired her masterpiece The Mousetrap.

And when Poirot goes to Broadhinny to investigate, he is rather a fish out of water. Especially in the dreadful boarding house where he has to stay. The boarding house is run by Mrs Summerhayes (great name), a fun character who is brought emphatically to life in a couple of sentences.
The Summerhayes household is in a state of perpetual chaos... "The cat's been sick again... Those bloody hens are in the larder."

And when our hero tells Mrs Summerhayes that he is Hercule Poirot, expecting awestruck recognition of the great detective, she merely says "lovely name... Greek, isn't it?" Poor Poirot is punctured.

And when he explains that he's "'Perhaps the most famous detective there is.'" The response is, again, not what he expected:

"Mrs Summerhayes screamed with amusement. 'I see you're a great practical joker, M. Poirot'." 

Christie's gift for comedy is seriously under-appreciated, and this whole sequence is a comic tour de force.

But whatever Mrs Summerhayes may think, Poirot has soon begun to make serious progress on the murder of Mrs McGinty, linking the crime to one of four famous murder cases in the past.

The trouble is, he doesn't know which one...

Incidentally, one of those cases involved "poisoning by a vegetable alkaloid." By now Christie is, or is at least sounding, a lot more expert about her poisons than she was twenty years ago in Peril at End House.

And then Poirot is hit by an apple core and suddenly Ariadne Oliver is on the scene, linking up with the great detective for the first time since Cards on the Table. Mrs Oliver is a writer of detective stories and a fun surrogate for Agatha Christie.

Indeed Ariadne reflects regretfully on how in one of her books she blundered about pharmacology: "I made sulphanol soluble in water." Here one senses a mea culpa from Christie for her own heroin quills and cocaine chocolates.

The presence of Ariadne as a subsidiary investigator really peps things up, and the story is given even more energy when Poirot acquires another helper in the form of a young woman who is enlisted to assist him, much as Jane Grey did in Death in the Clouds.
In this case it is the glamorous Maude Williams, whom Poirot sends undercover as a maid in a posh household. Maude has a great line in sarcastic wit and refers to her bosses as "old frozen fish" and "Her Acidity".

But of course it is Poirot who ultimately cracks the case. And, as always, there is a moment in the story when this silly caricature of a foreigner gets deadly serious. 

"He was no longer a ridiculous little man... he was a hunter very close to his quarry."

This is topnotch Christie, fun, fresh and full of vivid characters and witty dialogue. 

And it is a distinctive and superior Hercules Poirot novel —  indeed it features that very rare occurrence, an attempt on Poirot's own life.

Oh yes, and the solution to the mystery is just beautiful. I never would have guessed it.

(Image credits: The main image with the beautiful, surreal Tom Adams fly is a scan of a copy from my own library. All the others are from Good Reads.)

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Peril at End House by Agatha Christie

Aha! I'm beginning to sort out the standard Poirot novels from the exceptional ones, and Peril at End House is an exceptional one. 

It's not a match for the wonderful Five Little Pigs (I'm beginning to think nothing ever will be) but it's right up there with Taken at the Flood as prime Poirot. 

Published in 1932, Peril at End House is the eighth in the series and it begins with Hercule Poirot and his sidekick, the "faithful dog" Major Hastings, on holiday together.

They are staying at a hotel on the Cornish coast, which even then was attempting to pass itself off as the English Riviera, leading to some sarcastic comments on page one.

Almost immediately Poirot encounters a captivating young woman, Nick Buckley (groovy name) who, though she doesn't realise it yet, is the subject of a series of murder attempts. 

But the would-be killer has "made a grave mistake... when he shot at his victim within a dozen yards of Hercule Poirot!"

Nick lives in a big mansion adjacent to the hotel. Yes, you've guessed it, it's called End House and Nick is the subject of the peril in the title. 

Her situation puts Poirot in a challenging dilemma, requiring him to "detect a crime before it has been committed — that is indeed of a rare difficulty."

And we are desperate for Poirot to succeed, because Nick Buckley is a great character, immediately vivid in the reader's mind, with her "small impudent dark head" and her fabulous, sardonic dialogue.

Like when she is talking about her boring lawyer cousin and says, "Charles thinks my mode of life is reprehensible and he disapproves of my cocktails, my complexion, my friends and my conversation. But he still feels my fatal fascination."   
Or in describing the hairdo of her frumpy cousin Maggie, which has "just become fashionable by accident."

And when Poirot comes to call on her, intending to reveal that she is the target of a murder plot, Nick tells him, "I'm devoured with curiosity."

Nick Buckley is a jackpot character and brings out the best in Christie. Also perhaps in Poirot, who seems to feel something of that fatal fascination himself.

Though he does describe Nick as an "allumeuse." It means a kind of posh (if you'll excuse the expression) prick tease.

It's a word Christie would use again in Murder in Mesopotamia. Interestingly there is also a ghastly and mysterious face at the window in Peril at End House, as there is Murder in Mesopotamia.

But Nick Buckley is brimming with vitality and fun, and so is the book. ("Dr Watson, I presume?" says Nick when she meets Hastings.)

Nick's friend Frederica, also vividly drawn, doesn't hesitate to bad-mouth Nick, calling her "the most heaven-sent little liar that ever existed." And then adding that "loyalty's such a tiresome virtue."

The dialogue in this novel is outstanding and Christie is clearly firing on all cylinders. 

Even Poirot gets in some zingers. Referring to Hastings' recent sojourn in Brazil, he says, "He has just returned from those great clear open spaces, etc." 

This is the tone of the book — sardonic, full of exuberance and energy. The novel is a breath of fresh air, like that blowing in off the sea in great abundance on the Cornish Riviera. 

And it fizzes with life, ironically for a story so focused on death.

The story's energy dips a bit when Nick is consigned to a nursing home for her own safety ("In the narrow iron bed she looked like a tired child") — although the attempts on her life continue.

And she remains a supremely terrific character, one of the best in the series so far.

Poirot is also very much on form, with his arrogance firmly intact ("I who am an original").
And soon enough he is on the track of the killer and Hastings observes, "His eyes were shining with the queer cat-like green light that I knew so well." 

(This is one of the few occasions where cats serve in a positive fashion in a Christie narrative; they're more normally signifiers of something negative.)

Peril at End House isn't flawless. There's a murder attempt by slipping cocaine into someone's food. And I simply don't think that could be lethal. 

Christie would become quite an expert on poisons, but at this stage there are the weird anomalies like the mysterious "goose quill" used to snort heroin in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926).

And there's a nasty little hiccup in Peril at End House when a Jewish character, who has up to now has been presented in a refreshingly positive light, is denigrated by Poirot. 

As Charles Osborne puts it in his excellent book on Christie, "You are saddened to hear this from Poirot, who must himself frequently have been the butt of other people's xenophobia."

Yet Peril at End House remains a top drawer Poirot novel. Is it better than Taken at the Flood? Well, the characters and dialogue here are clearly superior.

However, the solution to the mystery in Peril at End House — while it is entirely unguessable — doesn't quite have the flabbergasting astonishment factor of the ending of Taken at the Flood.

But it's a close thing.

And I'm looking forward to finding the other finest Poirot adventures, and telling you about them.

(Image credits: The nice Tom Adams cover with the plot-relevant Mauser pistol is scanned from my own copy. The other covers are from Good Reads. I love the yellow Bulgarian one with the rifle sights superimposed on Nick.)

Sunday, 1 September 2019

The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie

The Mousetrap is a victim of its own success. It's such a staggeringly popular play — the longest running in history — that it is easy to take it for granted.

In fact, it is such an enduring part of our cultural furniture that it's in danger of becoming completely invisible.

I first saw it, many years ago, in the same way I might have visited the Tower of London. Reluctantly dragged along to this tourist must-see, 

I actually found it very entertaining and I didn't come close to guessing who the killer was.

(And you can relax, I have no intention of giving that away here.)

But it is only recently that I've come to truly appreciate the really quality of this stage classic, when I read the play for the first time. 
I was immediately struck by the perfect moody, snowbound setting. We are in Monkswell Manor, a rather dingy guesthouse which has been cut off by a blizzard, where the isolated collection of diverse characters are about to become targets for a killer. 

The guest house is run by Mollie and Giles Ralston and the play begins, wittily, with Mollie picking up her husband's coat, scarf and hat while the radio describes the manhunt for a murderer wearing exactly these items.

There are also playful and self-referential scene directions, with one character described as  "a slightly taller edition of Hercule Poirot."

And great dialogue: "Terrible weather isn't it, takes one back to Dickens and Scrooge and that irritating Tiny Tim."

That's from the waspish and rather camp Christopher, who also remarks "I adore nursery rhymes, don't you? Always so tragic and macabre."

And, when a cop called Trotter turns up on skis, he quips "I do admire the police. So stern and hardboiled."

Agatha Christie is adroit at establishing character through dialogue. "All trains should have been met," snaps Mrs Boyle, "a large imposing woman in a very bad temper" who has had to make her own way from the station.

And there is a further, terrific revelation of character when Mrs Boyle says, "One tries to do a public duty and all one gets is abuse." 

This remark refers to the fact that she was a magistrate responsible for sending three young children to a terrible fate.

Which brings us to the most striking thing about The Mousetrap. The murders that take place here aren't arbitrary, for plot convenience.

They are potently motivated by this horrific episode of child abuse in the backstory, giving the whole play a dark power which drives it forward, and which no amount of comic relief can entirely disguise.

Disturbingly, this incident was based on a true story which I'll write about in another post.

But for now, suffice to say that The Mousetrap is one of Agatha Christie's 24-carat masterpieces, and it deserves its enduring and enormous success.

Time I went to see it again...

(Image credits: The main image of three mice pointing inwards is from Ann Arbor District Library. "Directed by Angela Wright" is from Kickstarter. The Ambassadors Theatre programme is from Arthur LLoyd. The fingerprint mouse is from Birminghmam 365. The mouse and the house is from Columbia County Current.  37th Year is from V&A. The Pardoe Theatre is from the excellent designer Nick Mendoza. The black white and red one is from Curtain Players. New Zealand Players is from Reed Gallery. The Chinese poster is from Pinterest.)

Sunday, 25 August 2019

Hickory Dickory Dock by Agatha Christie

The title of Hickory Dickory Dock will probably baffle non-English readers, and quite a few English ones. It refers to a nursery rhyme. 

The connection is utterly tenuous, though — most of the action takes place at a boarding house in Hickory Road, an imaginary location in London. 

Agatha Christie was weirdly fond of nursery rhyme titles and had a tendency to crowbar them in where they didn't belong. Possibly the worst example is Five Little Pigs, where she imposed an utterly irrelevant moniker on a masterpiece of a novel.

Hickory Dickory Dock isn't in that league, but it's good enough to deserve a better name. Still, the title provided the justification for that Tom Adams cover painting with the cute little mouse on it.
This is the 32nd Hercule Poirot novel, published in 1955. It begins with Poirot's faithful, infallible automaton of a secretary Miss Lemon revealing that she has a sister. And that this sister has a problem...

The sister is called Mrs Hubbard (possibly another nursery rhyme reference) and she runs that boarding house I mentioned. It's a student hostel and it is being plagued with a bizarre series of thefts.

It is refreshingly different to have a Poirot story being set in motion by a  crime other than murder — though there will be plenty of murder, too, of course.

What develops is a fascinating mystery, and Poirot himself is on fine form, "deliberately playing the mountebank"and revealing unsurprisingly that the "sound of his own voice was always pleasant to him."

At the same time his sharp and enquiring mind is very much in evidence. "Everything interests me," he declares. And after one of his awe-inspiring deductions a lawyer remarks, "In the Middle Ages you would certainly have been burnt at the stake."
This is the first Agatha Christie I've read from the 1950s, and her transformation is fascinating. Gone are the casually racist attitudes of, say, Death in the Clouds.

Here Christie is clearly bending over backwards in an attempt to be enlightened and tolerant. There are several non-white characters, including a young West Indian law student called Elizabeth Johnston.

Her intelligence and articulacy are constantly cited. Indeed, she's declared a "a very superior girl."

And when the thefts begin at the house in Hickory Road the woman who owns the house suggests that they should simply kick out all "these coloured ones."

"Not while I'm in charge," responds Mrs Hubbard coldly.

All very admirable. But we also get a dreadfully embarrassing comic turn by the African student Mr Akibombo. Still, full marks for trying, Agatha...

And also for straying so far outside the Christie comfort zone. As Charles Osborne puts it, "she makes a brave and remarkably successful attempt to move, temporarily, with the times, away from the grand country houses or the cosy cottages of St Mary Mead and into the genteel squalor of students' London in the mid-1950s."

What's more, Poirot's methodical investigation in the story is suitably fascinating, and baffling to the reader: "I dissect rucksacks. It's very interesting," he tells a police colleague. He also does a great bit of ratiocination involving a bowl of soup.

And Christie's storytelling is lively and engaging. One of the students says that if a girl she doesn't like is charged with murder, "I should rejoice madly." 

While elsewhere another student is searching through a pile of clothes in a woman's room, "burrowing like an excited terrier." Agatha Christie was obviously having fun writing this.

I had a bit of trouble keeping track of the characters — there are a lot of them and they're often referred to just by their first names, but the level of confusion here is certainly nothing like that of The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis.

And the solution to the mystery is suitably unguessable, if a little convoluted.

(Image credits: All the book covers are from Good Reads, except for the main one, the Fontana Tom Adams, which is a scan of my own copy. Besides the two versions of this Tom Adams, with its adorable little mouse, I particularly like the blue Swedish cover featuring a selection of the stolen items.)

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino's new film is overlong, deeply self indulgent... and I loved it.

Before I went to see it I'd heard criticism from people that it was "not a movie, just a bunch of scenes."

Well, like the film's considerable length, this is a conscious and deliberate line of attack by Tarantino. His movie is, after all, an explicit homage to Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West...

And here's what Tarantino said about Leone's epic (in Chris Frayling excellent book about that film): 
"Whereas in his other movies... he's still trying to tell a story... By the time he made Once Upon a Time in the West he was able to streamline it so that it's just set piece after set piece after set piece."

So, there you have it. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is also set piece after set piece after set piece. 

And while there might be one or two of them that are expendable, most  are varying degrees of delightful.

And some are simply stunning.

This is a story of a TV Western star, Rick Dalton (Leo DiCaprio) and his stunt double buddy Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick is trying to make headway in movies, but his career is on the decline and he's drinking too much. 

In fact, Rick is so sure that he's washed up that he breaks down in tears outside a restaurant while waiting for the valets to fetch his car.

"Don't cry in front of the Mexicans," Cliff admonishes him.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is often hilarious, and it lovingly evokes Los Angeles in 1969. At first it's just a rambling series of anecdotes about Rick and Cliff, interweaving them with real people from that time and place.

Most notably there's a cameo from Damian Lewis, who is an eerily perfect choice with his striking resemblance to Steve McQueen.

But then we discover that Rick lives next door to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) on Cielo Drive, the home where Sharon would be savagely murdered by the cult followers of Charlie Manson (Damon Herriman).

With this revelation Tarantino ingeniously sets a time bomb ticking and we know that however inconsequential and amusing his film may appear to be, it is inexorably heading somewhere very dark and violent indeed.

It's in the depiction of the Manson family that this film scores most strongly. They are brilliantly cast and performed, giving an impression that is disturbingly off kilter and deeply scary. In particular, Margaret Qualley is indelibly haunting as Pussycat.
And there's a scene where Cliff goes out to the run-down ranch where the cult members live, which is almost unbearably suspenseful. We are terrified, not knowing if he'll get out of there alive.

Tarantino correctly judges this "one of the best scenes I’ve ever done," and references the work of Peckinpah and Polanski. 

He also says, "I had been setting up Cliff as this indestructible guy. And yet you’re afraid for him."(*)
Absolutely right. It's a masterful sequence. 

But all the while that time bomb is ticking, and we know we're heading steadily towards that nightmare night on Cielo Drive...

However, this is Quentin Tarantino, who had no hesitation in rewriting the history of World War Two so that Hitler ends up shot dead in a movie theatre. 
So I was gratified and relieved to see the wild, mind blowing and uproarious climax he fashioned for his new film.

Of course, there's a question to be asked about whether it's acceptable to repurpose such an horrific personal tragedy as a pop culture collage.

But Tarantino apparently made his peace with Sharon Tate's widower, Polanski, and her sister, Debra.

So I suggest we all just relax and enjoy Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — did I mention that it also features Sayuri, who is superb in the role of Cliff's dog, Brandy? 

She gives a great performance despite being fed cans of rat flavoured and raccoon flavoured dog food.

(*These quotes are taken from an excellent in-depth interview with Tarantino by Mike Fleming at Deadline.  Image credits: a wonderful wealth of posters courtesy of Imp Awards.)