Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.
Today I began reading Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie. It’s a Poirot mystery first published in 1940.
Elinor Katharine Carlisle. You have been charged upon this indictment with the murder of Mary Gerrard upon the 27th of July last. Are you guilty or not guilty?
Elinor Carlisle stood very straight, her head raised. It was a graceful head, the modelling of the bones sharp and well defined. The eyes were a deep vivid blue, the hair black. The brows had been plucked to a faint thin line.
Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.
Mrs Wellman may have thought she wanted to die; but side by side with that feeling there ran the hope that she would recover absolutely. And because of that hope, I think she felt that to make a will would be unlucky.
I’ve read up to page 75 and so far Poirot hasn’t appeared, except in the Prologue during Elinor’s trial: Hercule Poirot, his head a little on one side, his eyes thoughtful, was watching her.
It is a damp, chill Friday morning in November and I am feeling old, very old; so old, indeed, that I am on the brink of death. I have lost two stone in weight, my face is the colour of aged parchment, and my hands are gnarled like human claws.
I must have watched nearly all, if not all, of David Suchet’s performances as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. For me he was the perfect Poirot, so it was a given that I would read his autobiography, Poirot and Me, written with the help of his friend Geoffrey Wansell. And it really lives up to its title, as the main subject is David Suchet’s role as Poirot. His first performance as Poirot was in 1988. Over the intervening twenty five years he played the part in every one of the seventy Poirot stories that Agatha Christie wrote, with the exception of a tiny short story called The Lemesurier Inheritance (a story in Poirot’s Early Cases and in The Under Dog).
When I started watching the TV dramas it had been years since I’d read any of Agatha Christie’s books and I wasn’t aware that the early shows were based on her short stories – actually I didn’t even know then that she had written any short stories at all. I’ve read nearly all of her full length novels, but only a few of her short stories so far.
I think Poirot and Me may not appeal to people who are not readers of Agatha Christie’s books as it consists largely of Suchet’s summaries of the stories and how he went about analysing Poirot’s character and how he played the part. He began by compiling a list of Poirot’s characteristics, then considering his voice and his appearance. He made 92 ‘character points’ and his original list is reproduced in the book, along with photos of locations, the cast and crew.
He was most concerned that his portrayal of Poirot should be faithful to the character that Agatha Christie had created. He immersed himself so completely in the character that at times he didn’t know where Poirot ended and he began! Even so, some of the dramatisations are not strictly faithful to the original stories, for various reasons; additional characters are included and some of the plots are expanded versions, especially where the original short stories were slight. Or, for example, as in the case of the collection of short stories that make up The Twelve Labours of Hercules, the stories are so diverse that the screenwriter created an almost entirely new story, though using some of the characters.
At the end of each of the Poirot series, David Suchet didn’t know if any more were in the pipeline and he continued to play other parts in film, on TV and on the stage. I found this just as interesting as the sections on his role as Poirot and it emphasises his qualities as an actor – he is a ‘character’ actor, a Shakespearean actor and with the exception of Poirot his roles have been pretty dark and menacing parts. I particularly remember him in Blott on the Landscape, in which he played the malevolent gardener and in The Way We Live Now as the sinister financier Melmotte.
He thinks the charm of the Poirot stories is that
… they reveal a world where manners and morals are quite different from today. There are no overt or unnecessary sex scenes, no alcoholic, haunted detectives in Poirot’s world. He lives in a simpler, some would say more human, era; a lost England, seen through the admiring eyes of this foreigner, this little Belgian detective. For me, that makes the stories all the more appealing, for although the days he lives in seem far away, they are all the more enchanting because of it. (page 64 in the hardback edition)
I think so too – and I think the same charm and appeal can be found in the Miss Marple stories.
David Suchet wrote that when Hercule Poirot died on that late November afternoon in 2012 (as he filmed Curtain) a part of him died, but for me and doubtless for many others, Poirot lives on not just in Agatha Christie’s stories but also in David Suchet’s wonderful performances as his ‘cher ami‘, Hercule Poirot.
Hardcover: 320 pages (also available in paperback and on Kindle)
I’ve been working my way through Agatha Christie’s books over the past few years and I have just a few left to read. Three Act Tragedy is one of them. It was first published in 1935 (as Murder in Three Acts in America).
As the title indicates the book is divided into three acts, or rather parts, First Act – Suspicion, Second Act – Certainty and Third Act – Discovery. It begins as though it were a theatre programme:
SIR CHARLES CARTWRIGHT
MISS HERMIONE LYTTON GORE
Summary from the back cover:
Sir Charles Cartwright, the distinguished actor, was giving a party. Around him his guests stood talking and drinking. The Reverend Stephen Babbington sipped his cocktail and pulled a wry face. the chatter continued all around. Suddenly Mr Babbington clutched at his throat and swayed …
The beginning of the drama …
Sir Charles suspects that Mr Babbington was murdered but Hercule Poirot, one of the guests, disagrees and there is nothing to show that his death was by any other than natural causes and besides who could possible have cause to kill him! However, later when Sir Bartholomew Strange, a distinguished Harley Street doctor who was also a guest at Sir Charles’ party, drops dead after sipping a glass of port at another party with some of the original guests, it becomes clear that this is murder by poisoning.
This is one of those cases where Poirot plays a secondary role, preferring to think rather than act and it is Mr Satterthwaite and Sir Charles who investigate the deaths. Mr Satterthwaite is an interesting character – ‘ a dried-up little pipkin of a man’, ‘ a patron of art and drama, a determined but pleasant snob’ and ‘a man of considerable intelligence and a very shrewd observer of people and things.’ An ideal partner in investigation for Poirot.
(This is Mr Satterthwaite’s first appearance outside a Harley Quin story – I have yet to read the Harley Quin stories.)
As for the other characters, some fade into the background, whilst others like Sir Charles and Hermione Lytton Gore, known affectionately as Egg are in the spotlight. This is one of Agatha Christie’s earlier books and is full of baffling clues, conjuring tricks, clues concealed in conversations, with larger than life personalities, and above all with puzzles to be solved. I really enjoyed it.
In this book Hercule Poirot reveals a little of his history, coming from a large and poor family he had worked hard in the Belgian police force, made a name for himself and an international reputation. He was injured in the First World War and came to England as a refugee, eventually becoming a private inquiry agent. He displays his usual vanity and egotism when talking to Mr Satterthwaite, who had realised that he might have accidentally have drunk the poisoned cocktail, by saying:
‘There is an even more terrible possibility that you have not considered. … It might have been ME.
Towards Zero, first published in 1944, is an intricately plotted murder mystery featuring Superintendent Battle, the last of the five novels he appears in. Agatha Christie dedicated this book to Robert Graves, author of I Claudius, who was her neighbour in Devon during the Second World War and the two had become friends. She wrote:
“Dear Robert, Since you are kind enough to say you like my stories, I venture to dedicate this book to you. All I ask is that you sternly restrain your critical faculties (doubtless sharpened by your recent excesses in that line!) when reading it. This is a story for your pleasure and not a candidate for Mr Graves’ literary pillory!”
It was received well at the time reviewed in the 6 August 1944 issue of The Observer:
“The new Agatha Christie has a deliciously prolonged and elaborate build-up, urbane and cosy like a good cigar and red leather slippers. Poirot is absent physically, but his influence guides the sensitive inspector past the wiles of the carefully planted house party, and with its tortuous double bluff this might well have been a Poirot case. How gratifying to see Agatha Christie keeping the flag of the old classic who-dun-it so triumphantly flying!”
It begins with a prologue in which a group of lawyers discuss a recent case at the Old Bailey. Mr Treves, a retired lawyer puts forward the idea that murder is not the beginning of a detective story, but the end, that murder is the culmination of causes and events that bring together certain people, converging towards a certain place and time, towards the Zero Hour – ‘towards zero’. The idea presupposes that there is an inevitability – that once events have been set in motion then the outcome is determined.
And in line with this idea, an unnamed person is seen planning a murder:
The time, the place, the victim. … Yes everything planned – everyone’s reaction foretold and allowed for, the good and evil in everybody played upon and brought into harmony with one evil design.
But the story begins with Angus MacWhirter recovering in hospital after a failed attempt at suicide, assured by a nurse that the mere fact of his existence could be of great importance, perhaps even save someone’s life one day. It then moves on to Superintendent Battle whose daughter has confessed to pilfering at school, even though she hadn’t stolen anything. The relevance of this episode is made clear later in the book.
And it is only later in the book that the murder is carried out, giving plenty of time for all the characters to be introduced, defined and their thoughts and relationships explored – Nevile Strange, a sportsman, good looking, wealthy, married to his beautiful second wife, Kay, Audrey Strange, Nevile’s first wife, Thomas Royde, Audrey’s distant cousin returning from Malaya, who hopes to marry her, and Ted Latimer, Kay’s friend who all converge at Gull’s Point, a large country house on a cliff above the River Tern where Lady Tressilian and Mary Aldin, her cousin and companion live.
The murderer could be any of them and as solution after solution is proposed I was completely bamboozled. All the clues are there, but subtly hidden, buried in layer upon layer. As was Superintendent Battle for a while. I like Battle, described as
‘solid and durable, and in some way impressive. Superintendent Battle had never suggested brilliance; he was definitely not a brilliant man, but he had some other quality, difficult to define, that was nevertheless forceful.
And as he also knows Poirot, he is able to apply Poirot’s use of psychology to the case, keeping the suspect talking until the truth slips out.
Towards Zero has to be one of my favourite of Agatha Christie’s books despite a few reservations – Angus MacWhirter’s role seems superfluous, other than introducing the idea of pre-destination, and Mr Treves’ story of a child killer wasn’t really explained. I was surprised by the ending – not the denouement of the murderer, but the unlikely romance between two of the characters in the very last chapter which seemed just too far removed from reality. But, disregarding these points I really enjoyed this book.
As Agatha Christie explained in her Foreword this story was an ‘indulgence‘, recalling the Christmases of her youth, spent at Abney Hall:
The Christmas fare was of gargantuan proportions. I was a skinny child, appearing delicate, but actually of robust health and perpetually hungry! The boys of the family and I used to vie with each other as to who could eat the most on Christmas Day. Oyster Soup and Turbot went down without undue zest, but then came Roast Turkey, Boiled Turkey and an enormous Sirloin of Beef. The boys and I had two helpings of all three! We then had Plum Pudding, Mince-Pies, Trifle and every kind of dessert. During the afternoon we ate chocolates solidly. We neither felt, nor were sick! How lovely to be eleven years old and greedy!
But I don’t think this story reflects her own Christmas experience apart from the setting, that is, for this is a collection of crime fiction! Poirot is invited to spend ‘a good old-fashioned Christmas in the English countryside’ in a 14th century English manor house, a prospect that fills him with apprehension, only agreeing to go when he hears there is oil-fired central heating in the house. There is of course a reason for inviting him – for a discreet investigation into the theft of a priceless ruby stolen from a Far Eastern prince. The Christmas Pudding in question is a ‘large football of a pudding, a piece of holly stuck in it and glorious flames of blue and red rising round it’. For a short story this is really complicated with several twists for Poirot to work through.
Four of the other stories feature Poirot, with the last one, Greenshaw’s Folly being a Miss Marple mystery, which I read last year in Miss Marple and Mystery. Greenshaw’s Follyis a house, an architectural monstrosity, visited by Raymond West (Miss Marple’s nephew) and Horace Bindler, a literary critic. Later, Miss Greenshaw having drawn up a new will, is found murdered.
The remaining four stories concern the murder of a man found a Spanish chest (The Mystery of the Spanish Chest), a widow who is convinced her nephew had not killed her husband despite all the evidence against him (The Under Dog), a man who has inexplicable changed his eating habits is found dead (Four and Twenty Blackbirds), and a man who has the same dream night after night that he shoots himself is found dead (The Dream).
I enjoyed reading these stories. They are of varying length and are all cleverly done, if a little predictable.
Hallowe’en Party begins with the party given by Mrs Drake for teenagers. One of the guests, Joyce Reynolds, a boastful thirteen-year old, who likes to draw attention to herself, announces that once she’d witnessed a murder. It seems nobody believed her and yet later on she is found dead, drowned in the tub used for the bobbing for apples game – someone had believed her and had killed her. Mrs Ariadne Oliver was at the party and she asks Poirot to help in finding the murderer.
This is one of Agatha Christie’s later books, first published in 1969, when she was approaching 80, and although I did like it for the most part, it is certainly not one of her best. It’s not terribly coherent and it lacks focus in parts as several characters, not sharply defined, are introduced along with a lot of detail and repetition. The plot, as usual in Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries is convoluted with lots of red herrings and loose ends. I thought the revelation of one of the character’s parenthood at the end was just too contrived to be believable. There are meandering and critical conversations about the ‘young people today’ and the state of the mental health service, with overcrowded mental homes, which so many of the characters thought must be the cause of the murder.
… so doctors say “Let him of her lead a normal life. Go back and live with his relatives, etc. And then the nasty bit of goods, or the poor afflicted fellow, whichever way you like to look at it, gets the urge again and another young woman goes out walking and is found in a gravel pit, or is silly enough to take lifts in a car. (page 37)
So it is down to Poirot to discover the real motive, but not before there is another murder. He investigates the possibility that Joyce was telling the truth and asks retired Superintendent Spence, living in the area with his sister, for details of any local deaths and disappearances over the past few years.
Even though I found this book less satisfying than many of Christie’s other books there are things in it that I liked. The relationship between Ariadne Oliver and Poirot for one – Poirot has to have a sip of brandy to fortify himself for the ‘ordeal’ of talking to her:
‘It’s a pity,’ he murmured to himself, ‘that she is so scatty. And yet she has originality of mind. It could be that I am going to enjoy what she is coming to tell me. It could be -‘ he reflected a minute ‘- that it may take a great deal of the evening and that it will all be excessively foolish. Eh bien, one must take one’s risks in life.’ (page 20)
And for another there is the description of a beautiful garden in a sunken quarry, a well designed garden with the appearance of being perfectly natural. There are several pages lyrically describing this garden, which seemed to me to reflect Agatha Christie’s own interest in gardens, particularly the gardens at her house in Devon, Greenway. Seeing this garden sends Poirot into an almost mystical state of mind as he absorbed the atmosphere:
It had qualities of magic, of enchantment, certainly of beauty, bashful beauty, yet wild. Here, if you were staging a scene in the theatre, you would have your nymphs, your fauns, you would have Greek beauty, you would have fear too. Yes, he thought, in this sunk garden there is fear. (page 93)
Overall, there are some vivid descriptions in this book – the Hallowe’en party and some of the descriptions of the teenagers ’60s style clothing for example as well as the beauty of the sunken garden, which for me compensated for its flaws. But if you haven’t read any of Agatha Christie’s books I wouldn’t recommend that you start with this one.
The Sittaford Mystery is one of the earlier of Agatha Christie’s books, first published in the UK in 1931 and in the US as Murder at Hazelmoor. It’s not one of her Poirot or Miss Marple mysteries, but features Inspector Narracott, ably assisted, if not lead, by Emily Trefusis, a remarkably resourceful and determined young woman. I really liked Emily.
The Sittaford Mystery begins with a seance, or rather a table-turning session at Sittaford House in a tiny moorland village near Dartmoor, not very far from the prison at Princetown. Snow has been falling for four days and now Sittaford is almost completely cut off from the rest of the world. At the seance are the tenants of Sittaford House, Mrs Willett and her daughter Violet, and their neighbours. When the message of Captain Trevelyan’s death is tapped out, followed by the word M-U-R-D-E-R, his friend Major Burnaby immediately decides to see if Trevelyan has indeed been murdered, walking in the snow walking six miles to Exhampton. Of course, when he gets there, he does indeed discover that his friend is dead, probably killed at the precise time that the message was received in the seance.
Inspector Narracott is called in and a young man, James Pearson, Trevelyan’s nephew is arrested for the murder. Emily, his fiancée, is convinced of his innocence. She enlists the help of the journalist, Charles Enderby and together they set out to discover the real culprit. Inspector Narracott is a quiet man, a thoughtful and efficient police officer, with a logical mind and attention to detail but Emily is determined and courageous in her search for the truth.
There are two mysteries in this book, who killed Trevelyan and why have the Willetts rented the house from him for the winter? I found it all very interesting, with plenty of clues, red herrings and suspects. Added to that is the escaped prisoner on Dartmoor, reminding me a bit of Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations, and of Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, emphasisedCharles Enderby’s reference to the seance as a ‘queer’ business, and thinking of getting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s opinion on the matter.
The setting and the characterisation are good. But although the plotting is good for most of the book, I felt the ending and the motive for the murder are rather inadequate, not least because I don’t think you could actually deduce who the murderer is – I guessed, but it was only a guess – not all of the facts are revealed until the denouement. For this reason I can’t rank The Sittaford Mystery with Agatha Christie’s best mysteries, but it is still a good read.
Note: the TV version in the Agatha Christie Marple series not only changes the identity of the killer but also inserts Miss Marple into the story!
I’m currently reading The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier and Almost Invincible: a biographical novel of Mary Shelley. But I like to think about the books I’ve got waiting to be read. They are:
The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie – set in a remote house in the middle of Dartmoor, a group of six people gather round a table for a séance. The spirits spell out a chilling message of murder. This is an early Agatha Christie book, first published in 1931 and is one I’ve been looking for, for ages.
A Short Book about Drawing by Andrew Marr. This is a library book and I have already flipped through it and read little bits. It has colour photos of his paintings along with his ideas about the differences between fine art and drawing, the mechanics of drawing and how drawing and painting can help us to think and see the world differently and so on. It looks fascinating and I’ll read this very soon I think.
Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb – this is free on Kindle at the moment. I know that other book bloggers like Robin Hobbs’ books and I’ve been thinking of trying one myself. This one is the first in the Farseer Trilogy. I’m not sure what to expect … If you’ve read it what do you think?
The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland. Another library book I’ve borrowed – this one from the mobile library. I loved Company of Liars and The Owl Killers, so I’m expecting great things from this book – I hope I won’t be disappointed. It’s set in the reign of Richard II, the time of the Peasants Revolt, a time of murder and mayhem and when suspicions of witchcraft were high as people started to die unnatural deaths.
The thing is that I want to read them all right now!
Half of September has gone! I’ve read 5 books and haven’t written about any of them (except for one and that’s for the Shiny New Books blog – more about that book later). The other four books are:
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (on Kindle)
Wycliffe and the House of Fear by W J Burley
Testament of a Witch by Douglas Watt (on Kindle)
The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
It’s much easier to write about a book straight after I’ve read it, so today’s post is about the last book I’ve finished, which is The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie. I’ll try to nudge my brain into writing about the other books as soon as I can.
The Moving Finger is a book I’ve had for a few years now, so it’s one off my to-be-read shelves. It is described as a Miss Marple mystery, but as she doesn’t appear in the book until three-quarters of the way through and after there have been two deaths, she doesn’t have a big part, although she is instrumental in unveiling the murderer.
The story is narrated by Jerry Burton, who has recently moved into the market town of Lymstock with his sister, Joanna. His doctor had instructed him to move to the country where he can take things slowly and easily whilst he recovers from a flying accident. Lymstock seems to be a ‘peaceful backwater where nothing happens‘, but soon after the Burtons have moved in Joanna receives a very nasty anonymous poison-pen letter. They discover that other people have also received them, and soon afterwards Mrs Symmington apparently commits suicide followed by the death of her maid, Agnes, which is without doubt murder.
I liked The Moving Finger. As usual with Agatha Christie’s novels there are plenty of suspects, including Mrs Cleat, well-known as the ‘local witch’, and there are plenty of clues, with a good deal of misdirection throwing me into confusion about who could possibly be the culprit. She captures the nastiness of the anonymous letters well with their accusations of illicit sexual activities. I always think Agatha Christie excels with her dialogue. It’s all so natural and I have no difficulty following who is speaking. I was also convinced about the characters, especially Megan Hunter, Mrs Symmington’s twenty-year old daughter and her relationship with her step-father. Lymstock, itself is a place about fifty years behind the times, but by no means the ‘peaceful backwater where nothing happens‘ that Jerry Burton was seeking.
The police are eventually called in, in the person of Superintendent Nash who then requests help from an expert from London on anonymous letters – Inspector Graves. But the vicar’s wife, Mrs Dane Calthrop isn’t satisfied and brings in an expert of her own, an expert who ‘knows people‘, ‘someone who knows a great deal about wickedness‘ and that person is of course, Miss Marple.
The Moving Finger was first published in 1942 in New York and then in the United Kingdom in the spring of 1943. Along with the puzzle, Agatha Christie, speaking through her characters. makes several comments that interested me – on work/idleness for example. The local doctor’s sister, Miss Griffith, who is a Girl Guide leader, states that idleness is an unforgivable sin, and in response Jerry Burton says:
Sir Edward Grey … afterwards our foreign minister was sent down from Oxford for incorrigible idleness. The Duke of Wellington, I’ve heard, was both dull and inattentive to his books. And has it ever occurred to you, Miss Griffith, that you would probably not be able to take a good express train to London if little Georgie Stephenson had been out with his youth movement instead of lolling about, bored, in his mother’s kitchen until the curious behaviour of the kettle lid attracted the attention of his idle mind?
Another example – considering whether Providence/the Almighty/God would permit dreadful things to happen ‘to awaken us to a sense of our own shortcomings‘, Jerry Burton responds:
There’s too much tendency to attribute to God the evils that man does of his own free will. I might concede you the Devil. God doesn’t really need to punish us, Miss Barton. We’re so very busy punishing ourselves.
Re-reading at her detective novels, Agatha Christie wrote in her Autobiography:
I find that one I am really pleased with is The Moving Finger. It is a great test to re-read what one has written some seventeen or eighteen years later. One’s views change. Some do not stand the test of time, others do.
In September 2008 Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise launched the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge to read her way through Agatha Christie’s novels, in the order in which they were written. I joined in but decided to read the books as I come across them rather than in order of publication. There are 66 mystery and detective novels and numerous collections of short stories.
Up to now I’ve read 54 books and 4 short story collections. The list of the books I’ve read is on my Agatha Christie Reading Challenge page. Just 11 or 12 books left for me to read (plus the short stories!):
1925 – The Secret of Chimneys – I think I’ve read this one! But I can’t find a record of it or the book, so maybe I haven’t!
1930 – The Murder at the Vicarage
1931 – The Sittaford Mystery
1935 – Three Act Tragedy*
1938 – Appointment with Death
1940 – Sad Cypress
1942 – The Moving Finger*
1944 – Towards Zero*
1944 – Death Comes as an End
1945 – Sparkling Cyanide
1945 – Destination Unknown
1969 – Hallowe’en Party*
* books I own
I also have The Mouse Trap to read and some of the short story collections – Wikipedia lists these and there are a lot! Then there are the books Agatha Christie wrote under the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott. I’ve read her Autobiography, but there is also an earlier book, Come, Tell Me How You Live under the name of Agatha Christie Mallowan.
A book lover writes about this, that and the other