Sunday 29 December 2019

The White Priory Murders by Carter Dickson

Carter Dickson's The White Priory Murders, set at Christmas, is a classic mystery novel, and one which makes a perfect companion piece to the equally wintry The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr.

Not least because Carter Dickson is John Dickson Carr. Possibly he adopted the pseudonym because he was too prolific to publish all his work under his own name. 

The books are similar for other reasons. White Priory's master-detective Sir Henry Merrivale is distinctly reminiscent of Hollow Man's Dr Gideon Fell.

 Both of these sleuthing geniuses are comically corpulent — in the course of three pages, Merrivale is described as wheezing, lumbering and waddling.

Both are locked room murder mysteries, with the revelation (don't worry, I won't give anything away) being based on a breathtaking, but entirely plausible, shift of logic which entirely alters the frame of reference and confounds our expectations.

Fascinatingly, both novels feature authoritative summaries and overviews of the whole locked-room genre, in this case in Chapter 12.

And both are ideal Christmas reading, since they have moodily and beautifully described snowbound settings — "the sky was a moving flicker of snow. There was something insistent, something healing, about those silent flakes, that would efface all tracks in the world."

"So quiet was this muffled world that they could hear the snowflakes ticking and rustling in the evergreen branches."

Indeed, footprints in the snow, or the lack of them, are crucial plot features both here and in The Hollow Man.

Carr (or Dickson) is a really superb writer. And, while the mystery he spins is compelling, and I wanted to know what happened, the main reason I kept being drawn back to this book was the outstanding quality of the writing.

Carr simply can't resist terrific descriptions, and they enliven long passages of exposition by diving into vivid flashbacks: "He sailed... on a bitter grey day when the skyline was smoky purple."

And he creates moods beautifully: "the tension... it was as though the room were full of wasps, and you could hear the buzzing."

Or, the way the reminder of a recent death "intensified the grey loneliness of the room."

He can also be wickedly funny — "He had put on his thickest-lensed spectacles in honour of the occasion."
I found myself spellbound by the setting of The White Priory Murders — the isolated Restoration manor house is a chilling and eerie place. "It had grown darker outside, and dead tendrils of vine whipped the windows as the wind rose."
And the group of characters gathered here are also brilliantly evoked. Like Katharine Bohun —  "her eyes had a hot, hard brightness." 

Carr doesn't seem to have got the memo that this is supposed to be a potboiler. He is writing with an edge of poetry worthy of 'real' literature.

There a numerous moments of superb physical description — "With steady fingers she struck a match; the gas lit up with a hollow whoom, and little yellow blue flames... flickered on her face."

"He put the palms of his hands together before him, weirdly as though he were going to dive."

Or the way a character "pushed open the you might prod a deadly snake" with his cane. 

In fact, the fellow putting his palms together and pushing doors with his cane is the very unpleasant Maurice Bohun, a wealthy, clever and vicious academic. 

He also has a nasty temper — "Maurice was white with a smiling, deadly lightly-sweating fury"... "For a second there was almost a deformity of rage in Maurice's face."

Maurice is an unforgettable character and there's a real sense of place, and a powerful atmosphere to his home, the White Priory. But the book ends, rather beautifully, back in town "high above the green Embankment, the glittering river, and the mighty curve of London."

This is a classic Golden Age crime novel which deserves to be remembered not for the ingenuity of its plot but rather for the beauty of its writing. 

(Image credits: The IPL edition — "Sir Henry Merrivale solves the curious incident of the dog in the night-time" — is from my own library. Incidentally, if like me you associate that phrase with Mark Haddon's 2003 novel, and the play based on it, it turns out that the quote is from a Sherlock Holmes story, 'The Adventure of Silver Blaze'. Cheeky people at IPL! Not least for the way the artist Nicky Zann has created a pastiche of the original Pocket Books cover. The green Penguin is from Amazon. The Pocket Books edition is from the wonderfully named Baskerville Books. The absolutely wild Belmont Tower edition featuring a 1970s image of hipster with a goatee and a gun who bears no earthly resemblance to Henry Merrivale is from Grant Thiessen Books in my old hometown, Winnipeg, via ABE. The yellow — giallo — Italian Mondadori edition is from Anobli. The other covers came from Good Reads. )

Sunday 15 December 2019

Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is so consistently brilliant that it's actually kind of a relief to finally encounter a disappointing book by her. 

Elephants Can Remember is the 40th Poirot adventure, published in 1972. As with Hallowe'en Party it co-stars Ariadne Oliver, indeed her name represents the first words of the book.

Much more so than in Hallowe'en Party, Ariadne does the legwork here – I guess Poirot was entitled to have a rest, given that he was already no spring chicken when he began investigating, back in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, over half a century earlier.

In fact we get a bit of uncharacteristic and rather melancholy modesty from the great detective when he reflects that "many people who had heard of Hercule Poirot are now reposing with suitable memorial stones over them."

Which shows that Christie was still capable of a witty turn of phrase. 

Ariadne brings Poirot a case, a cold case, which involves him "going back... for murder."  Go Back for Murder was the title Christie gave to the excellent stage play she adapted from Five Little Pigs, her masterpiece.

To be exact, Inspector Garroway comments, "Monsieur Poirot, if I'm not mistaken, has occasionally shown a leaning towards looking into cases, going back, shall we say, for murder, going back into the past, twice, perhaps three times."
There then follows a discussion of Five Little Pigs (a bad mistake, I think because of the comparison it invites between that brilliant book and this decidedly weak one) Hallowe'en Party (containing quite a spoiler) and Mrs McGinty's Dead.

I'd say all of those books are better than Elephants Can Remember, which hinges on an apparent murder and suicide — or is it a suicide pact? —  on a bleak cliff top involving a husband and wife.

The wife has an identical twin. Or does she? In case you think that's another hint of a fascinating twist in the story, it isn't...

The sisters are called Molly and Dolly, which leads to a bit of confusion for the reader. But that's nothing compared to Christie's evident confusion about the pair. 

At one point Dolly is described as "the more beautiful of the two" (they're identical!) while elsewhere one sister is said to be older than the other (they're twins!).

The worst thing about this old identical twins gag is that it immediately plants a suspicion in the reader's mind about what might actually have happened on that cliff top.

And I duly made my guess about the solution of the mystery. But you never guess the solution in an Agatha Christie — not correctly.

So I avidly followed Poirot's traditional monologue at the end in the comfortable and unshakable knowledge that he would pull the rug out from under me at the last instant and present a breathtakingly brilliant and quite different interpretation.

But he didn't.

The final revelation in Elephants Can Remember is, for the first time in my experience in Christie's work, dull and rather obvious.
However, I should mention that the admirable Charles Osborne in his book The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie thinks this story "is actually an ingenious one." 

And even if like me you see the ending coming a mile off, we should perhaps take account of the fact that this is a very late work by Agatha Christie.

In fact it's the second last novel she wrote. It would be followed by Postern of Fate and then the final Poirot, Curtain, and the final Miss Marple, Sleeping Murder, both of which were written thirty years earlier and stored away like vintage wine. 

Anyway, after some 70 books and a long and dazzling career, I think she should be forgiven for a somewhat disappointing novel.

How quick we should be to forgive her for the even more disappointing racial slur on page 2 of this book is another matter.

(Image credits: The main image is a scan of my own copy. The other cover designs are from Good Reads, some of them brilliantly inventive, as if to make up for the weakness of the novel itself.)

Sunday 8 December 2019

Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie

Lord Edgware Dies, published in America under the inferior title 13 At Dinner, is the ninth Hercule Poirot adventure, published in 1933.

And it is great Agatha Christie. The setting and characters are extremely vivid but – above all – the solution to the mystery is simply brilliant.

... Although perhaps the ultimate surprise in an Agatha Christie would be if the killer really turned out to be a passing tramp, a theory propounded and discarded in just about every one of her books.
But not this one. Lord Edgware Dies is set in the milieu of the London aristocracy and the theatre crowd, including a couple of alluring actresses who are among Christie's more memorable creations.

The gorgeous but shallow Jane Wilkinson, aka Lady Edgware, says things like, "I'll find a rag to put on" and "All those hats are too frightful. Ring up the other hat place, Ellis. I've got to be fit to be seen."

So, an intriguing and well evoked setting, inhabited by memorable characters moving through a really top notch mystery... 

This is a ripping good Poirot, really engrossing and with an immediately interesting set up.

I should perhaps also mention that the book has hardly started when it sets a new record for the number of racial slurs on one page, all emanating from a "strangely likable" young man.

This is Ronald Marsh, who will become the new Lord Edgware after the one in the book's title gets bumped off.

Marsh has his own idea about who killed his uncle. And he proposes a solution that would be another genuine surprise reveal in an Agatha Christie — that Poirot did it.

"The perfect crime," says Ronnie, "by Hercule Poirot, ex-sleuth hound."

Lord Edgware Dies is swift, economical and prime Poirot. His sidekick Hastings is back and rather amusingly fed up with his friend's cliches: "I'm afraid that I have got into the habit of averting my attention whenever Poirot mentions his little grey cells."
Hastings has reason to be fed up, considering that his friend is saying things like, "Where the master goes, there the dog follows." 

A remark which Hastings says "I could not think was the best of taste."

On the other hand, the great detective acknowledges the importance of Hastings as a sort of experimental control. 

"I see reflected in your mind exactly what the criminal wishes me to believe,"  Poirot tells him.

Hastings for his part talks about Poirot with ideas "lingering in his fantastic brain." 

And as that fantastic brain works out the solution to this remarkable whodunnit, once again,"His eyes were green like a cat's." 

They needed to be very green and very like a cat's. 

Because this novel is right up there with Murder on the Orient Express, The ABC Murders,The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (a lot of murders there...) and Taken at the Flood for the sheer genius of its final revelation.

(Image credits: The main image of the classic Tom Adams cover painting is from my own battered copy. Otherwise, thank you, GoodReads, for your fine selection of cover art including the early Finnish version which is really stretching a point by featuring the Eiffel Tower — all the Paris action in this book takes place strictly offstage and in the past.)

Sunday 1 December 2019

The Addams Family by Lieberman, Addams et al

 I've virtually stopped going to animated movies but I was lured back into the cinema for this one because of my love the for black and white 1960s TV series, and indeed the original (non-animated) cartoons by Charles Addams which inspired this whole shebang.

One of the great things about the TV series was that it was the only show on American television depicting a marriage that was both happy and passionate — Gomez just couldn't get enough of Morticia. ("Tish, that French! Cara mia!")

It also had a fabulous theme song and a great soundtrack by the wondrous Vic Mizzy.  ("They're creepy and they're kooky, altogether spooky...")

Well the new animated version has completely lost the passion between Gomez (Oscar Isaac) and Morticia (Charlize Theron). But at least it keeps the theme song.

The movie has a lot of good gags, such as the one featuring Thing, a disembodied male hand, who is caught watching pornography on his computer — naked, disembodied female feet.

And it has a fine cast, especially Chloë Grace Moret, whose understated deadpan, malevolent performance as spoonfaced, spooky Wednesday is just a scream.
What the movie doesn't have is a decent script. 

It begins with an origin story, the Addams clan fleeing persecution by a mob of torch wielding old villagers in Europe to take up residence in America. 

(There's a nice gag later on where a mob of modern American villagers come after them bearing cell phones with images of burning torches on them.)

Thereafter the movie settles down to focus exclusively on a story concerning each of the children. 

This is basically a fatal mistake. For a start it completely sidelines Morticia and Gomez, the mum and dad. 
I guess the thinking, if you can call it that, is that this is an animated movie aimed at children, so it should be about children.

Which is nonsense, of course. After all, the Toy Story films are about the toys, not the kids who own them

Anyway, the boy Pugley is given an incredibly dull rite of passage / coming of age plot. Enough said about that.

Meanwhile, Wednesday fares rather better as we follow her decision to attend the local school with the normal kids. 

This leads to the best scene in the film where she disrupts a biology class by bringing the dissected frogs back to life.It's a genuinely terrific sequence and very funny, featuring a nice nod to The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978 version).
Afterwards, as Wednesday walks out of the school with her very impressed new friends they invite her to "Come to the mall." Wednesday diffidently agrees. "I haven't been to a good mauling in ages."

But we never go to the mall with her. Which is a huge missed opportunity. And indeed we never again reach the heights of the biology class scene. The movie has peaked.

There's a lot of business about a TV makeover star and property developer (Allison Janney) which features a lazy swipe from the plot for Ira Levin's Sliver. It's not great...

But the animation is great, there are some nice gags, Moretz as Wednesday is a hoot.

And the more cryptic lyrics to that Vic Mizzy theme song have finally been deciphered for me ("Put a witch's shawl on, there's a broomstick you can crawl on...")

(Image credits: Many creepy, kooky posters at Imp Awards.)