Agatha at her most tongue-in-cheek:
Edna restored the toffee to the centre of her tongue and, sucking pleasurably, resumed her typing of Naked Love by Armand Levine. Its painstaking eroticism left her uninterested—as indeed it did most of Mr. Levine’s readers, in spite of his efforts. He was a notable example of the fact that nothing can be duller than dull pornography.
And, I loved this:
I've finished The Great Fortune, the first of the three books that make up this trilogy.
‘Such a war! An unexploded squib of a war! What folly ever to start it. The great nations think only of power. They do not think of the ones who suffer for such a war.’
War has well-and-truly broken out, and Paris has been taken by the Nazis. I'm not ready to write a full review, so I'm just going to toss down some quotes and take a break for a week or two.
* * *
‘All these religious concepts,’ said Guy, ‘are only a means of keeping the poor poor; and the rich rich. Pie in the sky. Accept the condition it has pleased God to put you in. I am not interested in eternity. Our responsibilities are here and now.’
* * *
The day they were invited to luncheon with the Druckers was one of the last warm days of October. Harriet had arranged to meet Guy in the English Bar, but when she looked for him in the bar, he had not arrived. This did not surprise her, for she was beginning to realise that however late she might be for an appointment Guy could always be later.
* * *
* * *
If one could not be a great writer – a Tolstoy, a Flaubert, a Stendhal – what was the point in being a writer at all? Disconcerted, Harriet said lamely: ‘If everyone felt like that, there wouldn’t be much to read.’ ‘What is there to read, anyway? Rubbish, most of it. Myself, I read nothing but detective novels.’ ‘I suppose you do read Tolstoy and Flaubert?’ ‘I did once. Years ago.’ ‘You could read them again.’
Another day is another world. The difference between foreign countries is never so great as the difference between night and day.
A Game of Hide and Seek is a 1951 novel by Elizabeth Taylor. My copy was reprinted by NYRB Classics in 2012. I've not read anything by Elizabeth Taylor previously.
This was not an easy book to read. It begins with a brief summer romance between the two main characters, Harriet and Vesey, as teenagers. They have been thrown together through family relationships and known one another since childhood. This summer, their relationship changes into something looking like a romance, and they spend the summer in a state of nervous, static attraction.
‘Harriet is afraid,’ Joseph observed. ‘Harriet is a ninny,’ Vesey told him. He spoke as if Harriet herself were no longer there. ‘She lets words break her bones. She hides her face at the slightest thing. She picks all these flowers to comfort herself because her hands are trembling.’
The book is set during the interwar period of 1920 - 1939. After their summer romance, Vesey and Harriet are separated - Vesey goes to Oxford and Harriet remains in the same place.
A year is too long to wait for someone beloved. In the morning, she would set about living that year, comforting herself across the great waste of days. This afternoon she could not begin. At the end of her weeping, when words began to come again into her head, ‘It is too long,’ she cried. She rested her throbbing face in the cool, harsh bracken. She felt that she had cried all the tears of the rest of her life.
In spite of this passage, there is nothing really convincing about the relationship between Vesey and Harriet, however. Their feelings for one another seem shallow, inconsequential things. Vesey completely disappears from the narrative, and we see only Harriet's perspective.
There is a long period of separation that is bridged with little comment from the author, and we move forward twenty years or so. Harriet marries Charles, an older man, a solicitor, who provides her with material comforts. She has a child.
Jessica Terrace looked like a row of paper houses. No lights shone from any of the windows or the fan-shaped glass above the doors. The evergreens were glossy in the rain, unseparated from the pavement, for the iron-railings had been taken in the war. The façade seemed to have so little depth that even Harriet, who had lived here for sixteen years, could scarcely believe that, behind it, passages ran away towards kitchens; that in remote parts the front-door bell could not be heard, and that, in back rooms overlooking the narrow gardens and level with the top branches of a mulberry-tree, her daughter and the young maid were asleep. She loved the lulled sensation of being driven at night and was reluctant to leave even this musty car. ‘Wake up!’ Charles said crossly. They had stopped by the familiar street-lamp. She said goodnight to the driver and hurried towards the steps, her head bowed in the rain.
When Vesey finally returns, having left Oxford, failed as an actor, the tenuous affair from the first part of the book sputters into a tiny flame. This part of the book reminded me of Madame Bovary, although Harriet is not so impulsive as Emma Bovary. But she and Vesey engage in some mild slinking around, although the author never really makes it clear whether or not they actually have an affair, or if they just consider having an affair. If Vesey had been ambivalent before, he wasn't less ambivalent now.
As soon as the leaves fell now, she felt the possibility of shoots coming up through the hard ground; autumn was implicit in summer; no season held. There were no more long summers. The last was when she had played hide-and-seek with Vesey and the children. Since then the years had slipped by, each growing shorter than the one before. It had not seemed a long time, her married life. Summer and winter had run into one another.
Harriet was an extremely frustrating character, reserved to the point of paralysis. Her early love affair with Vesey was so much not the thing that dreams are made of that her adherence to it baffled me. The writing was very beautiful, at times, but I still wanted someone, anyone, to do something, anything. It reminded me of Henry James - exquisite but cold.
Charles was the only character who felt like he had any blood in his veins at all.
This is one of those books that is hard to rate. It's good, but I didn't enjoy it. I'll keep giving Taylor a try, because I've heard positive things about some of her other books. I have Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, which sounds like a much more enjoyable book.
Christie embarks on a fun, but not entirely successful, foray into historical mystery.
This book is unique in the Christie canon in that it is her only book set in antiquity. I'm not sure if this represents the first example of a historical mystery, but certainly I'm not aware of any golden age writers who were writing that particular subgenre. This seems to be another instance in which the Queen was ahead of her time.
The plot itself was delightful, and the mystery did have me stymied. I bounced between suspects until the climactic scene where all is revealed.
Where the book didn't work, though, was in the historical setting. Themis described the book as a country house murder set in ancient Egypt, and that pretty much describes it. Unlike more modern historical mystery, which works hard to create characters that feel authentic, there wasn't a single character here who felt Egyptian to me, much less Egyptian in 2000 B.C.
Nofret, the concubine, was any random young hussy who has captivated an older foolish man and is bent on cutting his family out of the family fortune. Imhotep was that foolish older man - a country squire who has fallen hard for a young woman of low birth and who is besotted by sex and a pair of blue eyes. And his family reacts in various predictable ways depending on their various personalities. Murder ensues, rinse, repeat.
It felt like the Lee family from Hercule Poirot's Christmas. But in fancy dress.
Two left: Sleeping Murder and Why Didn't They Ask Evans.
Themis/BT - one of you previously said that this is basically a country house mystery transported to Ancient Egypt, and so far I certainly agree with you. It has all of the hallmarks of the big, patriarchal English family, with the undercurrents of manipulation between siblings to get access to money/influence.
I've really not been looking forward to this book, but I'm down to my final 3: this one, Sleeping Murder and Why Didn't They Ask Evans, which I am saving for the end.
Very amusing so far, and much more tongue-in-cheek/light-hearted than most of Christie's other work.
The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife: Poor Mrs. Packington has been a suitable, faithful wife to Mr. Packington for years upon years. Mr. Packington has fallen into the clutches of a young hussy, and Mrs. Packington needs the assistance of Parker Pyne. A trip to the beauty parlor and arrival of species lounge lizard later, and Mrs. Packington cares much less about Mr. Packington's behavior. But Mr. Packington doesn't much like this whole turn-about-is-fair-play thing. (three stars)
The Case of the Discontented Soldier: Mr. Wilbraham, single and retired from the military, is bored, bored, bored. With the help of Ariadne Oliver, Parker Pyne cures his boredom, and solves a problem for a young woman named Freda Clegg as well. This story was adorable. (4 stars).
Aside: Miss Lemon is in this book, too!
The Case of the Distressed Lady: A young woman comes to Mr. Pyne with a problem - she has stolen a ring from her friend and needs to replace it. This one doesn't quite have the charm of the first two, but Parker Pyne shows his cleverness. (two stars)
The Case of the Discontented Husband: Husband shows up in Parker Pyne's waiting room because his wife has taken up with a new, long-haired arty fellow and wants a divorce. This story was hilarious.
"At the present moment you are, from a feminine point of view, merely a waste product. Nobody wants you. What use has a woman for something that no one wants? None whatever. But take another angle. Suppose your wife discovers that you are looking forward to regaining your freedom as much as she is?” “Then she ought to be pleased.” “She ought to be, perhaps, but she will not be!"
The outcome of the story is downright funny. Parker Pyne chalks it up as "FAILURE—owing to natural causes. N.B.—They should have been foreseen." (4 stars)
The Case of the City Clerk: Another amusing little tale of a city clerk who is bored with his life and wants some excitement. He is enlisted in a bit of international intrigue, which comes off reasonably well. (3 stars)
The Case of the Rich Woman: This is a strange story about a rich widow who is bored now that her husband has died. They were both born quite poor and he made a lot of money by developing some sort of process in the mill where he was foreman. It's probably the most implausible of all of the stories, which is saying something, and the point didn't really convince me. It felt like it fed into a lot of Victorian stereotypes about the working class and their ability to handle wealth. Weakest story in the collection so far. (2 stars).
Have You Got Everything You Want? This one takes place on the Orient Express - Parker Pyne meets a young woman with a problem. I loved the story, but Agatha's marital advice is terrible!
“What is truth?” said Mr. Parker Pyne. “In my experience it is usually the thing that upsets the apple cart! It is a fundamental axiom of married life that you must lie to a woman."
One wonders about Christie's marriages (4 stars).
A Suspense Novelists's Trail of Deceptions in The New Yorker.
What a ride, you guys. This article was fascinating - highly recommended. Probably better than the book.
The Burden is the first of the books written by Agatha Christie under her Mary Westmacott nom de plume that I've read, although it was the last one published. It was published in 1956, the same year she published Hickory Dickory Dock and Dead Man's Folly.
This is a very strange little book centered around Laura, the least-loved child in her family. Very early in the book, she has a younger, favored, brother who dies, and Laura hopes that her situation will change. Her younger sister, Shirley, is born, which puts her back in the position of being less.
She makes friends with a cranky local man who generally dislikes children, but sees something in Laura that is interesting. He remains a constant friend and fixture in her life. Initially, Laura's feelings about Shirley are decidedly negative - until she saves Shirley's life at significant risk to her own, when Shirley is around 2 years old. Laura becomes deeply protective of Shirley from that point on, and raises her once their parents die unexpectedly.
Agatha Christie sets this up as a contrast between dark - Laura - and light - Shirley. Laura gets short shrift with her own life, dedicated essentially to caring for Shirley. Shirley falls hard for a pretty awful man, whom she later marries. This becomes a significant source of tension, when he ends up significantly disabled by polio. This does not improve him.
I read this book very quickly, partly to just get it over with, I think. I really didn't like it - the decisions being made by all of the characters were confounding. The ending was just weird.
Even in the context of this book, which is described as a "psychological romance," Agatha can't get away from crime. In addition, I don't think that I agree that this is a romance, as that genre identifier is generally applied today. I don't think that Laura is capable of an HEA, given the level of trauma that she sustained during her life (at least not without a lot of therapy). She is restrained to the point of isolation.
I'm not sorry I read it, because Agatha. But I am hopeful that it is the weakest of her Westmacott books, because it's hard for me to imagine that they could be worse.
This was only my second time reading this book - the first time I read it, I remember being extremely underwhelmed. Like other Christie's, this one improved the second time I read it. This makes me wonder if rereading Passenger to Frankfurt will somehow turn it into The ABC Murders (kidding, kidding). I attribute this to the fact that I'm less concerned with Christie's high-wire mystery act, and rather I allow myself to be absorbed into her world.
Mrs. McGinty's dead has several wonderful side characters - the delightful Superintendent Spence, who is just bothered by the murder conviction of James Bentley, scheduled for execution.
And Bentley was eventually arrested and tried?"
"Yes. The case came on at the Assizes. Yesterday. Open and shut case. The jury were only out twenty minutes this morning. Verdict: Guilty. Condemned to death."
"And then, after the verdict, you got in a train and came to London and came here to see me. Why?"
Superintendent Spence was looking into his beer glass. He ran his finger slowly round and round the rim.
"Because," he said, "I don't think he did it...."
With this set up, Poirot heads off to Broadhinny, Kilchester to do some digging around and to see if he can figure out why Mrs. McGinty, a hard-working charwoman with few financial resources, but a mild tendency towards being a busy body, is dead. Upon arrival, he insinuates himself into the community.
The best thing about this book - and I mean the best thing about this book - is Ariadne Oliver. She has arrived in Broadhinny because Robin Upward, a local playwright, has persuaded her to allow him to adapt one of her Sven Hjerson. The interactions between Robin and Ariadne are hysterical.
"But people who read my books know what he's like! You can't invent an entirely new young man in the Norwegian Resistance Movement and just call him Sven Hjerson."
"Ariadne darling, I did explain all that. It's not a book, darling, it's a play. And we've just got to have glamour! And if we get this tension, this antagonism between Sven Jherson and this - whats-her-name?--Karen--you know, all against each other and yet frightfully attracted--"
"Sven Hjerson never cared for women," said Mrs. Oliver coldly."
Mrs. Oliver decides that she will assist Poirot in solving the mystery, and takes care to introduce him to the Upwards and the other members of the local, minor gentry, while she fights with Robin and continues to despise her main character.
"How do I know why I ever thought of the revolting man?" I must have been mad! Why a Finn when I know nothing about Finland? Why a vegetarian? Why all the idiotic mannerisms he's got? These things just happen. You try something--and people seem to like it--and then you go on -- and before you know where you are, you've got someone like that maddening Sven Hjerson tied to you for life. And people even write and say how fond you must be of him. Fond of him? If I met that bony, gangling, vegetable-eating Finn in real life, I'd do a better murder than any I've ever invented."
I'm dying here.
The mystery is really just OK, although the murderer is a nasty piece of work. This book is worth reading because of Ariadne Oliver, though, and I have a feeling that it will become a favorite reread precisely because of her.
I've decided to reread several of the mysteries that I've only read because I don't remember them well. So, you'll be seeing lots of Christie on my feed for the next few months as I finish her novels, and then work through my personal ranking. What a way to spend the spring!
Poirot paused a moment at the gate to pass a hand over his moustaches. As he did so a car came twisting slowly down the hill and an apple core directed with force hit him in the cheek.
Ariadne Oliver has arrived.
I was unimpressed with this one on the first read, but am rereading to refresh my memory so that I can properly place it in my Agatha super-ranking.
I do remember liking Maude Williams - another Emily Trefusis, I think?
"All those clues," said Andrew, "You could make a story out of them - even a book."
"Too many names, too complicated," said Deborah, "who would read a book like that?"
"You'd be surprised," said Tommy, "what people will read - and enjoy."
I am coming to the end of Christie, and it is bittersweet. Postern of Fate is not good, but I can't help but feel a sense of melancholy and awe for Dame Agatha's accomplishment. In a way, it's fitting that this was her last book.
Agatha would've been opposed to Brexit:
"It's a good thing, the Common Market. It's what we always needed, always wanted. But it's got to be a real Common Market. That's got to be understood very clearly. It's got to be a united Europe. There's got to be a union of civilized countries with civilized ideas and with civilized beliefs and principles."
"Well," said Mr. Robinson, "some get to the tops and some have the tops forced upon them. I would say the latter applies to me, more or less. I've had a few things of surpassing interested forced on me."
"That business connected with - Frankfurt, wasn't it?"
This must be a reference to Passenger from Frankfurt, but I've repressed the memory of that book, so I can't recall Mr. Robinson.
"Betty, our adopted daughter, went to Africa," said Tommy, "Have you heard from her?"
To be clear, Tommy is talking to Tuppence. His wife. Betty's mother. I am glad that he clarified that he was talking about THEIR CHILD, because otherwise, I am sure that Tuppence would've had no idea who he was talking about...
So far, this has the opposite effect from By The Pricking of My Thumbs - nothing is happening. Although exploring classic children's lit with the Beresfords isn't completely charmless.