Agatha Christie Challenge – Month 5- A Pocket Full Of Rye (1953)

This month’s challenge book needed to involve tea and the featured choice, published in 1953 was the most recent Christie I have read so far and the first to feature Miss Marple.  I am beginning to show a preference for her later work, they seem more subtle with greater depth in terms of character and psychology behind the crime, although of course, I am basing this on just a handful of titles.

This one is slipping in at number 2 in my favourite Christie titles.  It didn’t sparkle as much as last month’s “Murder Is Easy” (1939) but positions itself just ahead of “The Hollow” (1946).  The tea makes an early appearance as it is the last thing consumed by Rex Fortescue, the head of Consolidated Investments Trust, a family business, which he has controlled by just being on the right side of the law.  Inspector Neele is on the case and much of the work is done before Miss Marple makes a very delayed appearance and stays at the Fortescue’s home on the flimsiest of pretexts.  Further crimes occur which appear to link to the “Sing A Song Of Sixpence” nursery rhyme or is someone just using this as a device to mask the real motive?

It’s very much a backstage role for Miss Marple here and some may say her presence wasn’t necessary but I did rather enjoy her contribution to balance out the not terribly likeable set of suspects.  I thought I’d picked up on the clues and sorted out the ending but I hadn’t, so there is the pleasure of Miss Christie outfoxing me again.  All in all a very satisfactory read which will have me looking forward to next month without blowing me away on this occasion.  June’s challenge is to pick a book which features a garden.

A Pocket Of Rye was published in 1953.  It is available as a Harper Collins paperback.  I read it from an omnibus edition of Miss Marple novels (number 2) which also includes A Caribbean Mystery, They Do It With Mirrors and The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side. Further details about the Christie Reading Challenge can be found at http://www.agathachristie.com

Agatha Christie Challenge Month 4- Murder Is Easy (1939)

This month’s challenge was to read a book set before World War II and this 1939 publication just fits into the timescale.  This  was the title recommended by the good folk at agathachristie.com and I did think it was a stand-alone, but no, after I read it I discovered it is the 4th in the series featuring Superintendent Battle,  a sequence which had begun with 1925’s “The Secret Of Chimneys”.  Here Battle makes a blink and you miss him appearance and adds nothing to the plot so my thinking it a stand-alone is very excusable.

Main character Luke Fitzwilliam is a retired police officer returning to England from his post in the Mayang Straits when he meets an elderly woman on the train on her way to Scotland Yard to report a murderer at large in her village of Wychwood-Under-Ashe.  Fitzwilliam, at a loose end goes to investigate on the pretence of writing a book about folklore and local customs.

This has been my favourite of the Challenge books so far and there’s quite a notch up in the entertainment factor from my second favourite, The Hollow.  Most of the murders have already taken place leaving Fitzwilliam to work out whodunnit.  I like the feel of this book, the location and characterisation gives it stronger atmosphere and the folklore slant offers us suggestions of darker forces at play and even of satanic orgies in the woods.  Fitzwilliam stays at the home of poor-village-boy-made good now newspaper magnate Lord Whitfield and becomes fascinated by his fiancée.  There’s a mixture of doctors, librarians, publicans, servant girls in the cast list and even a cat called Wonky Pooh!

The novel feels freer and less formulaic than some of her Poirot titles.  I was thoroughly entertained and didn’t guess whodunnit.  I would have been unlikely to have encountered this book without the Christie Challenge and would have missed out on this enthralling cosy crime caper with good edges of darkness.  Next month it’s a story featuring tea, luckily there’s a suggested title.

Murder Is Easy was first published in 1939.  I read a Harper Collins paperback edition. Further details about the Agatha Christie Challenge and Facebook/Instagram book groups on this title can be found at http://www.agathachristie.com.

Agatha Christie Challenge- Month 3- Lord Edgware Dies (1933)

This is the 9th Hercule Poirot novel and was the recommended choice for this month’s Christie Reading Challenge which specified a book including a society figure.  Its 1933 publication date means that it is the earliest of the novels I have read for the Challenge.  I’m beginning to think that my suspicions that those featuring Poirot would not be my favourite of hers is coming true, I do find him a little hard to take as a character.

However, this is narrated by sidekick Captain Harding who I do like and who is as exasperated by the Belgian detective as I am, who wearies at any mention of “his little grey cells” which assist greatly in helping Poirot solve his cases.

I also like there being more than one corpse, thus whittling down the suspect list.  My only real gripe is with characterisation.  I feel that they are introduced well and I know who each is and the relationship to the victim initially but start to lose my grip on this mid-way through.  I think this is because there is limited character growth.  This was certainly a stronger feature in the later publication “The Hollow” I read in January so perhaps this is a way in which Christie developed as a writer.

It’s no spoiler to say that it is Lord Edgware who is the first victim here.  His American actress wife has already met Poirot and enlisted his help before the nobleman’s demise.  Other suspects include his heir, a disappearing butler, a film actor and a stage actress who impersonates Lady Edgware as part of her act.  Poirot is keen to find out whodunnit before Inspector Japp and asks the right questions to the right people.  Unusually this book ends with the confession by the killer which has been sent to Poirot so no looking to the last page or it will spoil everything.  Next month the challenge is to read a story set before World War II.  I’m hoping to read one of her stand-alone novels and it will be interesting to see if, as I suspect, I will favour these.

Lord Edgware Dies was published in 1933.  I read a Harper Collins e-book which was available on Borrowbox, my library service’s online app.  Further details about the Agatha Christie Challenge and Facebook/Instagram book groups on this title can be found at http://www.agathachristie.com.

Agatha Christie Challenge – Month 2 – Parker Pyne Investigates (1936)

This month on the Agatha Christie Challenge the theme was love with the suggested title being this collection of linked short stories.

It’s an earlier Christie than “The Hollow” I read last month and all of the fourteen stories feature Parker Pyne, a man who promises happiness.  This is the only work wholly dedicated to this character, he made appearances in other short stories but never made it into the novel form.  (In the closing story “The Regatta Mystery” he was replaced by Poirot in an American collection).

Pyne is not an especially well-drawn character, we have little idea why he does what he does.  In an advert which appears to feature regularly in The Times he offers consultations on unhappiness and in this collection the majority of his clients show up because of this ad.  He brings happiness by his unique approach to problem-solving involving a small team of people who work for him and through his ability to see the true root of a problem, often through his fondness for statistics.  The most successful stories keep things simple, there is a tendency in some of the later tales to overload with characters to get Christie’s celebrated whodunnit format which doesn’t work so well in the short-story framework where they become names more than characters and I found myself turning back to see who was who.

In around half of the stories Pyne is office-bound but mid-way through begins a Mediterranean/Middle East tour which gives more exotic locations and a more diverse cast for him to bring happiness to.  I think he loses his identity and individuality somewhat in these stories, which is what might have led to his replacement by Poirot in a later version of one of them.   It seems that the format of the office-based Pyne sorting out the problems from behind his desk was deemed not gutsy enough to last the whole book.

In a Foreword the author claims her own favourites (this seems an unusual move) “The Case Of The Discontented Husband” and “The Case Of The Rich Woman”, this last one based on a remark made to Christie from a woman who did not know what to do with all of her money!

This is an enjoyable set of stories, very much of its time, with quite a few missing jewels and just the odd murder.  I didn’t like it as much as last month’s choice.  I felt the stories tended to blend one into another probably because Christie struggled to establish much in the way of characters within the short fiction format.  I don’t think I would have ever discovered Parker Pyne if not for this challenge so it was good to meet up with him in these stories.

Next month the book choice needs to involve a society figure.  For more information on the challenge and details of a Facebook/Instagram Book Club on this months choice visit agathachristie.com.

Parker Pyne Investigates was first published in 1936.  I read a Harper Collins Kindle edition.

The Hollow – Agatha Christie (1946)

I’ve been meaning to read more Agatha Christie for some time.  I’ve checked back and it was 15 years ago since I read 1949’s “The Moving Finger”.  She was perhaps the main author who turned me into an adult reader as around the age of 12/13 I really got into her books, interspersing them with the less appropriate horrors of James Herbert, “Jaws” and “The Godfather”.  Reading her as an adult I can’t say I’ve ever really fallen in love with any of her titles but it is generally always a pleasing experience.

Recently I spotted the year long Read Christie challenge set up at agathachristie.com, the official home for this important twentieth century British author.  The challenge is to read each month a book within a theme, there is a main title specified with other suggestions made.  For January the theme is a story set in a grand house and the choice is “The Hollow” which I have never read.  It’s not too late to sign up for the challenge at the website and receive a Read Christie 2021 postcard to track your progress and take part in social media activities and a Facebook/Instagram Book Club meeting on 28th January.

I found a copy of “The Hollow” available on Borrowbox, the online e-book/audiobook site which is part of my local authority (Isle Of Wight) library membership. (I have returned it now if anyone on the island is after it!) 

I know that my attitude towards Agatha Christie is somewhat quirky.  I have tended to shy away from anything featuring her most famous creation, Hercule Poirot.  I have never seen David Suchet’s famous depiction in the TV adaptations yet I will always watch any standalones that have been filmed and my favourite Miss Marple is not the archetypal characterisation by Joan Hickson, but the 60’s black and white of Margaret Rutherford, or even, which might upset Christie purists further, Julia McKenzie.

Here, however, we are indeed in Poirot territory, but he does not really have that great of a role to play.  “The Hollow” is the name of the country house, specified by my challenge, the home of Lord and Lady Angkatill and it begins with the prospect of a weekend gathering at the property which will be attended by (mainly) cousins and other family friends.  I thought the characterisation here was much stronger than I remembered of this author and I became really invested in those desperate to escape to “The Hollow” for a couple of days and those dreading it.  I really enjoyed the build-up to the murder (not a plot-spoiler, you knew there was going to be one, didn’t you).  I have felt in the past that the investigations (especially when Poirot is heavily involved) can be a little turgid but here much less so.  I think putting the eccentric Lady Angkatell and sculptor Henrietta at the centre of things helped as they are both sparky characters, intent on doing and saying their own thing and not letting a murder in the country house hold them back.

The weaker element here was the resolution which wasn’t as clever as I had hoped and Poirot’s success was largely just to him being in the right place at the right time. I did find my return to Christie after a lengthy absence very satisfactory.  The book was always involving and, although unlikely to be amongst many Christie fan favourites top picks I would have thought, it certainly whetted my appetite for the next challenge.  One month ticked off on my postcard.  February, appropriately for the month of St Valentine’s Day, asks for a story involving love to be read.  I hope February does not pass me by without me experiencing a bit of love Christie-style.

“The Hollow” was published in 1946.  I read the Harper Collins e-book.  Details of the Read Christie 2021 challenge can be found at agathachristie.com

Margaret Rutherford: Dreadnought With Good Manners – Andy Merriman (2009) – A Real Life Review

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Many years ago I read “Margaret Rutherford: A Blithe Spirit” (1983) written by “adopted” daughter Dawn Langley Simmons.  This was an extraordinary tale that stayed with me in an unsettling way.  Dawn had started off  life as Gordon, although he had, if I remember the account rightly, both sets of genitalia.  In teenage years Simmons was rushed to hospital in agony with internal bleeding which turned out to be menstruation.  An operation was needed and Gordon was then Dawn and went on to marry and claimed to have had a baby.  Much of this has apparently now been refuted and Simmons called a fantasist and one of a number of people who exploited the naivety of Rutherford and her husband.  Merriman cites the 2004 publication “Peninsula Of Lies” by Edward Ball as the one that shatters the myths and I must seek that book out because this was one of the aspects which still confused me after reading this biography.

Margaret Rutherford (1892-1972) was one of the greatest British character actors of all time.  I read Merriman’s previous book on Hattie Jacques and that had been a very good read.  This is a man who knows and values his larger than life British character actresses.  This is a book that has been sat on my shelves for some time and I’ve been itching to get round to it.  (The Library Book Bingo I have been participating in gave me the chance).

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I think since Rutherford’s death it has been pretty much forgotten just how popular a performer she was and for a long period of time.  Perhaps now she is best remembered as the 1960’s Miss Marple in a series of films which appear quite regularly on television and which Agatha Christie was reputed to hate (fabulous theme music) but she had been a star for at least twenty years before that.  Her breakthrough came as the medium Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s play (and subsequent 1945 film) “Blithe Spirit”.  In 1963 she won Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in the Burton/Taylor vehicle “The VIP’s” and in 1967 was made a Dame.

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Blithe Spirit

Merriman begins by exploring a family secret which had great repercussions for Rutherford’s outlook on life and her mental health.  He rattles through Margaret’s development as an actor and we get to sympathise that her  looks and appearance ruled out glamorous leading lady roles and throughout the book will on a lady who it seemed rarely said an unkind word to anyone and who was highly respected in the entertainment industry.  Margaret came as part of a double act.  She was married to actor Stringer Davis from 1945 to her death and she had it stipulated in contracts that he be given a part in her productions.  (“Spotting Stringer” is a good game to play in many of her movies.  In the Miss Marple films he was given perhaps his most meaty role of his career with the specially written-in Mr Stringer part).  He was absolutely devoted to her and relished the role of “Mr Rutherford”.  Merriman speculates a little as to whether the Davis/Rutherford match was all that it seemed but generally he’s a sympathetic biographer who mentions but tends to steer clear of stirring up any scandal.

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Husband and wife in “Murder Ahoy”

This is a good read and also a touching one.  Rutherford regularly checked herself in for electric shock treatments,  suffered mental health issues throughout her life, was probably manic depressive (bipolar in today’s jargon) and was taken for a ride by some people who managed to get close to her and Stringer.  Add to this her inability to deal with financial matters  and you’ll know that this comic genius had much sadness to endure.

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Margaret Rutherford: Dreadnought With Good Manners  was published by Aurum in 2009