book log: Agatha Christie — A Caribbean Mystery

53) Agatha Christie — A Caribbean Mystery

Miss Marple’s nephew has paid for her to have a holiday in the Caribbean as part of her convalescence after a bad bout of pneumonia. The setting is very different to St Mary Mead, but the behaviours on display amongst the ex-pats are only too familiar. As the novel opens, Miss Marple is listening to the hotel bore, or at least making a polite show of same. She starts to pay more attention when the Major tells a story about a friend having accidentally taken a photo of someone who was almost certainly a serial murderer, but doesn’t it take it seriously until the the Major starts to pull a copy of the photo out to show her — and then sees someone and hastily puts it away. When the Major dies in his sleep that night, Miss Marple thinks there may be more to it than high blood pressure. Of course, nudging the local doctor to check whether the major really did have a prescription for blood pressure tablets is only the start. There are several potential suspects to be investigated as only Miss Marple can.

There are some nice characterisations in this book, not least being Miss Marple herself. There was some fairly acid internal monologue from Marple in the previous book (The Mirror Crack’d) about the young not having invented sex, and it continues here. On the second page:

“Sex” as a word had not been mentioned in Miss Marple’s young days; but there had been plenty of it–not talked about so much–but enjoyed far more than nowadays, or so it seemed to her.

And there’s more in that vein. This is not an unworldly spinster, whatever the world may think.

I spotted the murderer straight off, which diminished none of the pleasure of reading the book; not least because I realised who, but not why, which is neatly concealed in a shoal of red herrings. Not my favourite Marple, but still an entertaining way to pass a few hours.

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book log: Agatha Christie – The mirror cracked from side to side

49) Agatha Christie – The mirror cracked from side to side

This one’s interesting not just for the murder mystery itself, but because it was written in 1962 and Miss Marple is feeling the passage of time. Change has come to St Mary Mead, with the advent of the Development, a new housing estate. Change has come to the social structure, with the slow disappearance of household servants, and the appearance of supermarkets. And age is affecting Miss Marple, who is old enough to need some personal care after an illness, but is not the completely dependent and mindless old lady her home nurse insists on treating her as. Her doctor and old friend prescribes some unravelling of knitting for her. He’s not just referring to her knitting, and soon Miss Marple has the opportunity to unravel a murder. Her friend Mrs Bantry sold Gossington Hall some years earlier after the death of the Colonel, and after several changes of ownership and some unfortunate attention from developers it has now been sold to a Hollywood film star, who has restored it to a private home. Marina Gregg intends to take part in village life, and this includes hosting a public fund-raising event in the grounds for charity, and inviting various village notables to a private reception to view the refurbishments. As the former owner of the house, Mrs Bantry is an honoured guest — which puts her in a prime position to view events at the reception that in hindsight were a prelude to a murder.

This was one where I spotted who and part of why pretty much at the point of the murder — but the misdirection was so good that I wasn’t sure until almost the very end, even though the rest of why had been laid out quite clearly part way through the book, if you know what to look for. It’s a great read that kept me turning the pages, although it has a more melancholy feel to it than the earlier Marples. Christie has written a superb portrayal of an old woman who recognises that change isn’t necessarily all bad, but nevertheless feels discomfited by it even as she does her best to embrace the good aspects. And the ultimate motivation for the murder is heartbreaking, all the more so because it appears to have been based on a real life incident.

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book log: Agatha Christie – A Pocket Full of Rye

47) Agatha Christie – A pocket full of rye

City businessman Rex Fortescue has a nice cup of tea at the office, and dies of poisoning. The peculiar points to this are the poison used, and the fact that the dead man’s pocket had grains of rye amongst the contents. Inspector Neele sets about investigating the dead man’s household, which provides a good selection of potential suspects. Alas, one of the best suspects is next on the murderer’s list, and then there’s a third death.

Miss Marple doesn’t appear until nearly half way through the book. Her interest in the matter is the housemaid who was murdered, who happened to be one of the many girls Miss Marple has trained as a maid over the years. When she arrives to provide information on the girl’s background, Inspector Neele recognises her as someone who has a great deal of common sense and the ability to get people who wouldn’t dream of talking to a policeman to reveal secrets to her. The resulting interplay between Neele’s investigation and Miss Marple’s investigation is most entertaining. Neele’s no fool, even if he’s happy to play one in public, but it’s Miss Marple’s experience of human behaviour that allows them to unravel who, how and why.

Well plotted, with one or two twists on the resolution of the red herrings which make them interesting little tales in their own right, rather than just a distraction from the true identity of the murderer.

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book log: Agatha Christie — A Murder Is Announced

42) Agatha Christie — A Murder Is Announced

Miss Marple novel. A murder is announced at the home of Miss Blacklock, by way of an ad in the local paper announcing the time and place. It’s assumed by Miss Blacklock’s household that it’s some sort of unpleasant joke, and by everyone else in Chipping Cleghorn that it’s announcing a murder mystery party. A large contingent contrive to drop in at the time announced — only to see a real attempted murder and suicide. But was it suicide, or was the young man who shot at Miss Blacklock simply a cat’s paw for someone else who then disposed of him?

Beautifully constructed mystery, with the clues all there but skillfully disguised, in a lovely study of English village life soon after the end of the Second World War.

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Book log: Agatha Christie — The Body in the Library

32) Agatha Christie — The Body in the Library

Miss Marple novel with, yes, a body in the library. The library in question belongs to an old friend of Miss Marple, but the dead blonde doesn’t. Unfortunately for Colonel Bantry, it’s far too delicious a piece of tittle-tattle for the villagers to believe that the Colonel has never seen the girl before, and Mrs Bantry is well aware that her husband will be broken by the gossip if the real murderer isn’t found, even if the police believe him to be innocent. So her immediate reaction is to call in her friend Miss Marple for help.

The victim is soon identified, along with several people who might have had a motive to kill her. But those with strong motives have strong alibis, and those with weak alibis have weak motives. Adding to the confusion is the second murder of a young girl. Miss Marple has good reason to find the solution, both to clear the names of the innocent — and to prevent a third murder.

AS usual with Christie, many of the characters are cardboard, but very skillfully painted cardboard, with real motivations and consistent characterisations. One of the final elements really does seem to come out of nowhere, but the groundwork for it has been carefully laid. This is a beautifully constructed mystery, with all the clues you need, mixed in with a whole shoal of convincing red herrings.

The strength of Christie’s books is always her dissection of human behaviour, but here she’s particularly good at showing the dark side of the interest in gossip that Miss Marple uses to bring justice for the dead.

A week or so after reading the book, I listened to the abridged audiobook from Macmillan Digital Audio, read by Ian Masters. It’s a good abridgement on 3 CDs which manages to retain the necessary plot elements without signalling them too broadly, and Masters does a good job of reading the text. In particular, he manages to read the dialogue for the female characters without the over-exaggerated high pitch used by male actors on a few of the audiobooks I’ve listened to recently.

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Book log: Agatha Christie — The Complete Miss Marple Stories

15) Agatha Christie — The Complete Miss Marple Stories

Does what it says on the tin – every short story about Miss Marple, collected into a single volume. We have here the collection “The Thirteen Problems”, the six Marple stories from “Miss Marple’s Final Cases and Two other Stories”, and “Greenshaw’s Folly”. Twenty short stories in total, and in my edition there is also an introductory essay by Stella Duffy, which is well worth reading.

I think that reading all of these in one or two sittings would be a bit much; they would seem too formulaic. And in fact I listened to some of them in audiobook format read by Joan Hickson, and then read the others on and off over a period of a couple of weeks. But taken 2 or 3 at a time, the formula can become an asset to the story-telling, particularly in the Thirteen Problems collection. You have the same set-up in each story (a group of friends telling each other stories in the evening, and trying to guess the solution), and then the fun of watching the different approach each character takes to telling his or her story for the others to try to solve. Christie has created distinctive personalities for each of her recurring characters in these stories, and uses various quirks in their personalities to present and hide clues.

They’re short stories, so by their nature they can’t have the depth of the novels. But each story is an engaging puzzle, with the sharp observation of human nature, wittily told, that is Christie’s trademark. The quality varies from story to story, but as a whole this is a collection well worth reading.

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Book log: Agatha Christie — They Do It With Mirrors

Book 8)

Miss Marple goes to spend a few days with her old friend Carrie Louise, at the request of old friend’s sister who is worried that something sinister is happening without being able to pin down why she feels that way. Carrie Louise’s first husband set up a “good works” institution in the grounds of his estate prior to his death, which is currently being used to rehabilitate young criminals, and her third and current husband Lewis is one of the trustees of the institution. Several members of the rather complex family structure live with them, which means there are several people with a financial interest in murdering Carrie Louise. Then, of course, there are the juvenile delinquents. However, when murder happens, it’s with a twist. Lewis’s young assistant has a mental breakdown and has a confrontation with Lewis which climaxes with the young man shooting at him but missing, and at the same time her step-son from her first marriage is murdered elsewhere in the house by a shot which initially goes unnoticed in the immediate aftermath of the altercation between Lewis and his assistant.

Lewis tells the police that earlier that day the murder victim had told him in confidence that someone was trying to poison Carrie Louise — an obvious motive for someone to seize the opportunity to silence him while everyone was distracted, and an urgent reason for the police to find the killer before anyone else dies. It’s up to Miss Marple to unpick the tangle of motives and opportunity at Stonygates.

I worked out who and how almost immediately — but so excellent was the misdirection that I thought that I must be mistaken. As usual with Christie, once you do know what happened a lot of tiny details suddenly click neatly into place.

One thing I did notice was that Christie through Miss Marple has a lot to say about excusing criminal behaviour because someone had a problem childhood. It’s not a problem for me, since it’s in character for Miss Marple anyway, but I did feel that it was the author’s viewpoint as well as the character’s, and for some readers it might feel a bit too much like being lectured. But I enjoyed this book a lot — and when you finally know the answer, the motivation feels right for that character.

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Book log: Agatha Christie — The Moving Finger

Book 7

Technically a Miss Marple novel, although the little old lady from St Mary Mead barely appears in this one, not even being introduced until the final third of the book. It’s told from the viewpoint of Jerry Burton, a war-wounded pilot who has taken a house in the small town of Lymstock to spend a few months recuperation somewhere in the country away from his friends. His doctor’s advice was to take an interest in local politics and scandal as a way of keeping his brain occupied without stressing him. Jerry and his sister Joanna get an early opportunity to do just that, when they receive a poison pen letter. when they find that they’re not the first, they decide to track down the writer, almost as a game. But the game turns deadly serious when one of the recipients is found dead by poison, with a note saying “I can’t go on”.

Jerry’s continued interest in the case is welcomed by the police, for as the officer in charge of the investigation points out, as an incomer he doesn’t have pre-existing biases, but as a resident he will hear things that people will be reluctant to tell the police. And so Jerry gets to see in fine detail how scandal and gossip work in a small community, with the phrase “no smoke without fire” as a running theme of village conversation.

This is an excellent study of village gossip, with some fine character studies. The main disappointment is the portrayal of Miss Marple herself, who seems a curiously flat character in this book. I think I would have enjoyed it more had I known when starting it that Jerry is the primary investigative character as well as the narrator.

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Book log: Agatha Christie — The Blue Geranium and other stories [audiobook]

Book 90 (there was a glitch in earlier numbering, which I’ve corrected from here on, and in the master list for the year which will be posted soon)

Re-listen of the second CD set taken from The Thirteen Problems, read by the incomparable Joan Hickson. The four short stories on this double CD set are the titular “The Blue Geranium”, “The Four Suspects”, The Companion” and “A Christmas Tragedy”. The format is a group of friends telling each other creepy mysteries after dinner, allowing the others to try to guess the solution, and then revealing the answer. Miss Marple, of course, is able to solve each by her observation of human nature. Superbly read by Hickson, and highly enjoyable, though probably best listened to one or two at a time rather than the whole lot in one sitting.

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Book review: Agatha Christie — The Blood-Stained Pavement and other stories [audiobook]

Book 55

This is a 2-CD audiobook of the first five stories from the Miss Marple collection “The Thirteen Problems”, read by the late, great Joan Hickson, who played Marple on tv in the 80s and 90s. In each story, a small group of friends gathers together each Tuesday night, and spend part of the evening with one member telling the story of a mystery they encountered, and the others trying to work out what actually happened. Miss Marple, of course, is always the one to solve the puzzle, by drawing on parallels she has seen in village life down the years.

Hickson’s reading is an absolute joy to listen to, not only because she is Miss Marple for myself and many other fans, but because she is a superb reader. Her reading is perfectly paced, and brings the characters to life. The stories themselves are entertaining enough, although are probably best taken two or three at a time rather than all at once, as otherwise the consistent pattern of the stories could become annoying formulaic rather than pleasurable. I found that I usually worked out roughly what had happened and who had done it, but the exact details of how weren’t that easy to spot — although clear enough in hindsight…

A marvellous way to spend a couple of hours, although I may go out and buy the set with the complete “Thirteen Problems” to replace this set and its companion set “The Blue Geranium and other problems”, which don’t quite cover the full 13 between them.

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