Sunday, 19 May 2019

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

This book has something powerful in common with Ending Up by Kingsley Amis — both are tales about old people plummeting towards the end of their lives. Which you'd expect to be depressing, boring and a number of other things....

But as with the Amis book, Muriel Spark's 1959 novel Memento Mori features such a spiteful wit and such fascinating interaction between its memorable characters that it's actually quite a vivid pleasure to read.

One thing that is different from Amis, though, is that there's a supernatural mechanism at work in Spark's book. Her collection of old bastards start receiving anonymous phonecalls reminding them that they are going to die.

The voice sounds utterly different to each recipient, and the police seem strangely unable to trace the calls. Pretty soon it becomes evident that there is no human agency at work here. 

The phone calls are never explained — except to the extent that the police detective concludes "Death is the culprit" — but that doesn't matter. Spark's interest, and the reader's, lie elsewhere than cut and dried explanations...

Muriel Spark is sharply funny, as when she skewers a bore: "Olive closed her eyes and relaxed while his voice proceeded into the late afternoon." (Again this reminds me of Amis.) 

And she writes economically, lucidly and wittily.  At one point she remarks, "There was altogether too much candour in married life." Nice aphorism, Muriel.

She's also come up with a remarkable cast of characters, including the sinister and despicable Mrs Pettigrew, a truly scary servant with no respect for her employers; the despicable and resentful Godfrey Colston who regards his wife Charmain's "every success as his failure"; and Alec Warner who has "an almost cannibal desire" to record and analyse the effects of the phonecalls on the people in his circle. 
Spark has a bold and amusing style which at times is almost cartoonish — in a good way — as when describing how Charmain's "mind munched over the humiliations she had received from Godfrey."

And she is both psychologically acute and has a real gift for expression. Charmain has been aware of her husband's infidelities for decades, while pretending to be entirely ignorant of them: 

"He would never forgive her for having played this game, for over fifty years, of knowing nothing while at the same time knowing everything, as one might be 'not at home' while actually in the house."

Or how about this for brilliance of description. "Her words depressed him. They were like spilt sugar; however much you swept it up some grains would keep grinding under your feet." 

Having sung the praises of Memento Mori, however, I should add that if you haven't read Muriel Spark before I wouldn't recommend starting here. Try instead her wickedly funny The Girls of Slender Means, written four years later, in 1963.

(Image credits: Good Reads. The British hardcover with the purple dustjacket is from Wikipedia. The Penguin with the black and white caricature of the mouth and the phone is from We Buy Books at ABE. The Diogenes edition is from Text + Tone via ABE.)

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie

Sad Cypress (the title is taken from Shakespeare) is an adroit little Poirot novel — the 22nd in the series, published in 1940.

It isn't in the league of the stunning Five Little Pigs (a masterpiece) or the fiendishly clever and groundbreaking ABC Murders, but it is neat, effective and, as usual for Christie, quite unguessable.

At the heart of the novel is Mary Gerrard, a beautiful and spirited young woman who is just about to set off on her path in life.

If I have major reservation about the book, it's that I really wish Christie hadn't killed off Mary. I suppose it's a testament to the author's skill at bringing the character to life in the first place that I cared so much about the poor girl.

Rest assured I'm not giving anything away here by mentioning her death; we learn on the very first page of the book that Mary is dead and another young woman, Elinor Carlisle, is accused of murdering her.

And sitting in the court, watching Elinor, is none other than Hercule Poirot.

Apart from this brief appearance at the beginning, we won't see Poirot again until page 83. In the meantime Christie establishes the situation and the characters.

And the plot.

Once more poison is to the fore, and Christie's knowledge in this area — or at least, her research into it — is impressive: the plot of Sad Cypress hinges on the difference between two kinds of morphine.

At stake — and serving as one possible motive for murder — is a large fortune left behind by a sick old lady, Elinor's aunt. The book is set in motion (after that short court-room flash-forward) by an absolutely fantastic anonymous letter  — Christie is so good at writing in the voice of unsavoury characters: "there's Someone sucking up to your aunt." 

The anonymous letter hints that Elinor's aunt might be about to leave her entire fortune to Mary Gerard, the daughter of a servant. Well, we can't have that, can we?

In short order, the plot is writhing like a nest of snakes. Christie absolutely wrings the reader with suspense — the old lady has had a serious stroke and is unable to express her wish for how her will should be made out. 

And indeed her niece Elinor may be trying to deliberately thwart her...

Knowing in advance that Mary is going to die makes the unfolding story horrible — almost painful — to read. Poor Mary. (Reflecting on the dead girl's considerable beauty, Poirot observes, "with that there are always complications." Indeed.)

Soon enough Mary Gerard's gone, dispatched by poison (morphine in a fish-paste sandwich; that's a new one) and Elinor is in the frame for her murder. Everyone thinks she did it...

Except Poirot.

I know the prevailing wisdom is that I'm not supposed to like Poirot, or at least I'm supposed to regard him with affectionate contempt, as a crude caricature. But he's really starting to grow on me.

I love his cool ruthlessness, his arrogance, and the way he's always one step ahead.

Sad Cypress builds up terrific suspense in the court room sequences towards the end, with Elinor in the shadow of the gallows.

And Christie is as deft as ever — I absolutely never saw the truth about the killer coming... I still regret that she had to kill Mary, though.

(Image credits: The main image is a scan of my own, very battered copy with a Tom Adams cover painting. The other book covers are all from Good Reads. The Indonesian one is particularly brilliant in blending several crucial plot elements — the death's head to signify poison along with a tea cup, which is also a rose!)

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Go Back for Murder by Agatha Christie

This is the first play of Agatha Christie's which I've reported on. And it's devastatingly good. I think it's the best one I've read by her — and I read it in a collection which also includes The Mousetrap and Ten Little Indians.

It was first staged in 1960 and it's based on her 1942 novel Five Little Pigs (known in America by the superior title Murder in Retrospect), which not coincidentally, is my favourite Christie novel so far.

I say "not coincidentally" because the story is indelible and gripping. It is also powerfully simple.

Carla Crale is a beautiful young woman who wants to clear her mother's name. Her mother was tried for murder and found guilty of killing her husband, Carla's father Amyas Crale.

Amyas Crale (I just can't get enough of that name) was a famous and hugely talented painter. Vain and egotistical, he is also irresistible to women and never hesitated to have affairs outside of his marriage. 

And his wife, Caroline, tolerated these. Sort of...

But Amyas went too far when he brought his bewitching young mistress Elsa into the family home so he could paint her against the magnificent sea view there — fashioning a masterpiece, incidentally. But a masterpiece that would be the last thing he ever did.

During the hot summer days at the Crales' idyllic country house in Devonshire, the tension ratchets up. Caroline knows all too well what is going on. Even before Elsa blithely announces — to Caroline's face — that she's going to take her husband away from her.

But Amyas has no patience with this fraught domestic drama — he just wants to finish his painting — "when I'm painting nothing else matters — least of all a pair of jealous, quarrelling women."

Here, and elsewhere, Agatha Christie shows her psychological insight and her ability to create strikingly authentic characters. Amyas Crale is utterly true to life both in his single minded devotion to his art, and his technical discussion of it. 

When his model Elsa wants to put on a sweater because she's cold, he growls "Oh no you don't. It'll change all the tones of the skin." Christie has clearly done her research.

But painting your gorgeous young mistress on a hot summer day while your beautiful spurned wife is watching from the house is thirsty work. And Amyas demands a cold beer.

He gets one. Spiked with conine, a lethal "pure alkaloid" (again with the research, Agatha) derived from hemlock.

And, not knowing he's dying, he slowly and painfully finishes his painting while everyone else — including his killer — is inside the house having lunch.

Sixteen years later, his daughter wants to find out who really put the poison in his beer.

It's a superb and unforgettable story, studded with beautifully evoked and distinctive characters. 
The book the play is based on is a Hercule Poirot novel. And the first thing Christie did when adapting it for the stage was to eliminate Poirot entirely from the narrative. Yup, him and his little grey cells are just gone.

Which at first sounds crazy — remove the detective from a detective story?— but it makes absolute sense.

Of course, there are some kinds of detective stories where the hero rescues women from death, beats up bad guys, defeats the evil scheme and generally provides important turning points in the plot.

But in this kind, where the key thing is solving the puzzle, the detective is a viewpoint character. He doesn't actually do anything in the story except elicit facts and draw a conclusion.

The investigation Poirot did in the book is handed over in the play to a young lawyer Carla consults, Justin Fogg.

Christie makes some other canny — indeed quite brilliant decisions — I was particularly delighted that she eliminated Carla's drip of a fiancé. In the book he is boringly perfect, and exists almost entirely offstage, only turning up at the end to be "tall, square jawed" and have "steady grey eyes."

In the play the fiancé is a creep who doesn't deserve Carla. And Justin the lawyer, who has quite naturally fallen for her, is determined to take her away from the creep.

Thus Christie threads a satisfying love story through the mystery and adds another layer of pleasure for her theatre audience.  (And people like me who read the play.)

The novel concludes with all of the witnesses (which is to say, the suspects) returning to the house where it happened and reconstructing that fateful day. In the book this is done in dialogue.

In the play, with her peerless instincts as a dramatist, Christie has the events actually acted out in flashback, with the actress playing Carla now in the role of her mother Caroline.

Incidentally, the solution to the mystery is unpredictable, logical and stunning in the best Agatha Christie tradition.

But that, to me, is secondary compared to the sheer genius involved in her construction of the dazzling original novel, and then her deconstruction of it to refashion into this staggeringly clever play.

Dame Agatha, take a bow. My hat is off to you.

(Image credits: The purple Samuel French cover is from Barnes and Noble. The striking purple People's Theatre poster with the sealed envelope is from North East Theatre Guide. The Hamburg Players poster is from their own website. The Southwick Players handbill ("Pit your wits against Christie!") is from their archive. The lovely Teatro Impulso poster — is that an Augustus John painting? – is from News Sicilia. The Therry Dramatic Society poster with the backward arrows is from the Adelaide Theatre Guide. The nice 1920s style Rockville Little Theatre poster is from the RLT website. The Official Agatha Christie Theatre Company poster is from No More Workhorse. The image of Lysette Anthony in her 1960s chic is from All Edinburgh Theatre.)

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Us by Jordan Peele

Us is the innocent sounding title for the new film by Jordan Peele, the genius (I don't think that's too strong a word) who brought us the astonishing Get Out.

Get Out was a razor sharp thriller which trod the borderline between acute social commentary and science fiction. It was reminiscent of John Frankenheimer's Seconds, although it was more darkly funny and more deeply satirical.

For me, the one flaw with Get Out was its more blatant 'genre' aspects — the rather outrageous science fiction/fantasy/horror plot elements. Its greatest strength was its critique on race in America.

Well, Peele's new film doesn't have much at all to say specifically about race in America (although it made a fascinating double feature the same day I saw it with Green Book), whereas it moves explicitly and emphatically into the genre zone.

In other words, the new film emphasises what I regarded as the weaknesses of Get Out and discards the strengths. So you might think I didn't like it. But I loved it.

Us is a remarkable and disturbing movie which will grip you from the very opening scenes where a little girl gets lost at a fun fair, and you expect the most horrific consequences — and you're right, but not in any way you could imagine.

Peele is uniquely talented. Once again, the brilliant precision of his film-making combined with the audacious strangeness reminded me of Roman Polanski.

I don't want to give too much away about the movie — just allow me to urge you to see it — but I will say that it plays with notions of symmetry and duality and concurrence. 

There is a recurring motif of a biblical quotation, Jeremiah 11:11 and at one point a digital clock radio reads 11:11. Seeing the film a second time (how appropriate) I began to notice how subtly Peele has woven this theme in — in the background we hear about a baseball game tied 11:11.

But never mind the subtleties, let's talk about the overt aspects of the film. Us is both laugh-out-loud funny, in a very dark way ("I've got the highest kill count in the family") and utterly terrifying — both by means of physical brutality and psychological creepiness. 

And the performances are astounding — particularly Lupita Nyong'o. Since I'm not going to give too much away, you'll have to go to the movie to see what I mean.

Also deserving mention is the luminous photography of Mike Gioulakis, the hellishly unsettling music score by Michael Abels, and a very strange guest appearance by a whole bunch of white rabbits.

(Image credits: six posters from Imp Awards. The one with the three faces is from Notre Cinema. The disturbing image of the distorted face little girl is by Scott Saslow and is a fan art poster from Indie Wire. The Rorschach-looking grey one is again a fan poster, this one by Alex Lanier and is also from Indie Wire.)

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

This is the 25th Poirot novel, published in 1942 and the sixth one to come my way* — and it's fabulously good. Easily the best I've read so far. 

To start with, it is also the basis of a really superb 1960 stage play by Christie called Go Back for Murder, which is a much better title than Five Little Pigs (so is Murder in Retrospect, a rare example of me preferring an American title for a Christie novel).

I loved that play, which I also just finished read, so it's certainly predisposed me in favour of this novel. 

For another thing, Five Little Pigs is a cold-case story, dealing with a killing which took place 16 years earlier. And these are always fascinating, with their need to dig into the past and reinterpret situations, and of course their hints of a terrible miscarriage of justice...

Or, as Poirot puts it, "That was my task — to put myself in reverse gear, as it were, and go back through the years and discover what really happened."

This is a bit of a departure for Poirot, which is one of the wonderful things about Christie. Although she wrote dozens of novels about her detective, she didn't allow them to fall into a standard pattern. 

She'd constantly vary the kind of plot — locked room, serial killer, cold case — and also the narrative style — it's often first person narration by one of Poirot's 'Watson' surrogates, but here it's more like an omniscient narrator or what we'd call a close third person.

(But, crucially, we are never allowed to know what Poirot is thinking. Because that would reveal the truth too soon, and spoil the fun.)

Christie was always willing to experiment, and that keeps her work fresh.

This book is also marked by some wonderful dialogue as when a distinguished lawyer talks of someone having "joined the great majority" (i.e. died).

And the characters are genuinely memorable.

Five Little Pigs (I hate that title) tells the story of Amyas Crale — great name — a hugely talented but relentlessly womanising painter who was allegedly poisoned by his wife during a memorable summer when he brought his mistress into his home to paint her.

The painter, the wife, the mistress, all are impressively real and vivid.

The novel is set in motion by Crale's daughter, Carla, who was rushed out of the country as a child after her father's killing, and raised in Canada. But her mother arranged for Carla to receive a letter when she turned 21, declaring her innocence. 

And Carla believes her. So she goes back to England (goes back for murder) and hires Hercule Poirot.

And Poirot begins to probe into the past.

This is a book which will linger in your memory long after you finish it. The arrogance — and genius — of Amyas the painter...

The determination of his sensual young mistress, Elsa, to steal him out from under the very nose of his wife — and the way she is "insolent with triumph" when she thinks she has succeeded...

Then her "frantic unrestrained grief" after the poisoning. And how she dies inside because of the death of her lover. "Big grey eyes — like dead lakes," says Poirot.

And here is how Elsa describes her love affair with Amyas: "happiness isn't quite the word. It was something deeper and more frightening than that." Christie really is a good writer.

You won't forget this book — the hot summer day, the brilliant painting coming to life on the canvas, the vicious sexual tension in the household, the glass of beer, poisoned with the extract of hemlock...

Poirot pieces together what happened all those years ago by interviewing everyone present, including the governess, Mrs Williams who is a lucid feminist and coldly intelligent, saying "I admire self control."

As each of the witnesses give their statements, their characters are beautifully delineated. Christie's characterisation is of a very high order here.

The very ending of the book — and I don't just mean the revelation of the culprit — is stunningly good. The last couple of sentences are absolutely brilliant. This is a first class piece of writing.

If you've never read an Agatha Christie, I'd recommend starting with this one. I have many, many of her novels yet to go... but it wouldn't surprise me if this was her best.

(*You can also read my discussion of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder in Mesopotamia, The ABC Murders, Cards on the Table and Death in the Clouds.)

(Image credits: The main image, another ravishing Tom Adams cover painting for a Fontana edition, is my own copy which I scanned myself. The remaining covers are all from Good Reads, including another of the Indonesian series, of which I'm increasingly fond — white covers with a bold splash of red — and the lovely vintage Portuguese Coleccao Vampiro edition.)