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

realives

margaretrutherf

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).

margeretrutherf2

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.

margaretrutherf4

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.

margaretrutherf3

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.

fourstars

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