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 Lottery And Other Stories – Shirley Jackson

I started the work of American author Shirley Jackson the wrong way round.  My recent introduction to her was via her last novel, published in 1962, “We Have Always Lived In The Castle” which I loved.  Thirteen years earlier this collection of short stories appeared with the title work really establishing her reputation. It is here as the final story alongside 25 others and a poem linked to one of the tales which rounds things off.

Having not read many short story collections for years I have read three in fairly rapid succession; Truman Capote’s festive themed compendium “A Christmas Memory”, bringing together tales of his from throughout his career and Bryan Washington’s award-winning collection of themed stories in “Lot”.  I can’t get out of my head that this format can feel inconsequential and somewhat unimportant compared to a writer’s longer works.  Capote and Washington went a little way to changing my viewpoint on this, but Jackson’s collection, on the whole, doesn’t.

There is no doubt that she can write and is a major American twentieth century literary figure.  The stories are beautifully set up, often they deal with a newcomer whose arrival changes dynamics, often they have a character named Harris in them (not the same character but this is obviously a name the writer liked to use).  In the space of a couple of pages a situation and characters are vividly drawn but too often for me the ending comes without the story feeling fully realised.

Shirley Jackson was a prolific short story writer publishing over 200 and this was early on in her career where she may still be finding her voice to some extent.  She has become famed for tales where a veneer of respectability hides a layer of darkness and this is something which really appeals to me and this was certainly evident in the novel I read but not so fully established with these earlier stories.  It is certainly present in the title piece “The Lottery”.  This is where I experienced the most dread and it had a satisfactory twist and works best as the most complete of the tales here.

A number of the others reminded me of one of USA’s most celebrated short story writers (perhaps now out of fashion) O Henry (1862-1910), naturally with a more contemporary feel, but with his richness of language and scene setting if not with the clever endings which made his name.

I did enjoy these stories, at no point did Shirley Jackson bore me by going on too long but she did regularly leave me wanting a bit more, which now and again is a very good strategy but over the whole collection I must admit to finding it a little frustrating.

The Lottery And Other Stories was first published in 1949.  I read the Penguin Modern Classics  paperback edition.

Lot- Bryan Washington (2019)

This critically acclaimed collection of linked short stories is the winner of the 2020 Dylan Thomas Prize (given to the best work by a writer under the age of forty), was a New York Times Top 10 Book Of The Year and was publicly lauded by Barack Obama.  I don’t often seek out the short story format in my reading choices but I do have Washington’s debut novel “Memorial” due out in the UK in early 2021 on my reading schedule and I was interested in finding out more about this writer before I begin his novel and short stories are often a good way to get to know a writer.

In “Lot” we have 13 stories ranging from 3 pages in length to around 30 pages for the collection’s closer “Elgin”.  All are set in regions of urban Houston, which is where the author resides.  The majority of them feature the same characters at different parts of their lives, a narrator Nicolas, his brother Javi and sister Jan and their parents, a Latino father and Black mother. The family run a restaurant and the young Nicolas is coming to terms with his sexuality in a very macho culture. 

Occasionally the stories stray away from this family grouping.  One I found very involving was the more mystical “Bayou” where a couple of teens discover a creature of legend – the Chupacabra and see it as a potential means of escape from their existence and also the equally impressive “Waugh” where a young street hustler finds his own way out and attempts to save a recently diagnosed HIV+ friend.  Looking for escape is a common theme but most often the characters are so embroiled in their everyday existence that they do not take it.

This is a selection of powerful, often brutal stories which certainly have me looking forward to reading Washington’s debut novel.

“Lot” was published in 2019.  I read the 2020 Atlantic paperback edition.

A Christmas Memory – Truman Capote (Penguin Classics 2020)

With the reign of my current Book Of The Year “Swan Song” by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott coming to an end I have made good my promise to myself to explore further the writings of her central character, Truman Capote.  Penguin Classics have put out for this festive season a collection of six of his short stories around the theme of Christmas.

I read an early review edition which was without any introduction which I would have really appreciated to put these tales in context.  I’m not sure whether this would be put right in the published version but it seems the stories span from 1945 when Capote was a callow youth of 21 to a tale which is copyrighted 1982 so may not have seen the light until a couple of years before his death, but I guess was probably written much earlier.

Capote writes with a sense of nostalgia which is so appropriate for the festive period and I could see some of these stories ending up in my “read yearly” list.  I don’t know enough about him to know how autobiographical they are (again an introduction would have helped).  The first three feature the narrator’s relationship with an elderly yet almost child-like female cousin, Miss Sook, who the young protagonist adores.  “A Christmas Memory” is a wistful tale of seasonal preparations and their relationship is explored further in “A Thanksgiving Visitor” (okay, not quite Xmas) where her role as care-giver and educator is enhanced.  The young boy spends Christmas with an absent father in “One Christmas.” The least successful story “Master Misery” dates from 1949 and is a more brittle New York tale with a female main character which deals in the importance of dreams and will no doubt have some bearing on his later (1958) novel which confirmed his literary superstar status, “Breakfast At Tiffanys”.

My favourite story is also not especially Christmassy, “Children On Their Birthdays” shows strong characterisation and his plot of a new young female arrival in town is highly involving.  It is also characterisation which is the strong point of “Jug Of Silver” but it is not as fully realised as its predecessor in the book. 

This has really whetted my appetite for more Capote.  I like his style.  He handles the short story format well and I’m even beginning to feel a little more joyous towards the coming festival after reading it.

A Christmas memory was published by Penguin Classics on 5th November 2020. Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the review copy.

Again The Three – Edgar Wallace (1928) – A Running Man Review

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I’m celebrating!  On completing Edgar Wallace’s collection of 13 short stories that make up “Again The Three” I have finished the mammoth 900+ pages of the Wordsworth paperback edition of “The Complete Four Just Men” which I seem to have been reading for ages.

Written 23 years after the characters were first introduced in their successful debut I get the feeling that the demand was there for revisiting them in a short story format.  Wallace had a commercial mind (which sometimes backfired) and an enthusiasm for journalism throughout his life so may have produced these originally for some of the many publications he was associated with before putting them together as a published collection.  He certainly hasn’t trodden any new ground here, the story outlines seem similar and one “Mr Levingrou’s Daughter” is merely a tighter rewrite of earlier work collected in his 1921 “Law Of The Four Just Men“.  This is one of the sharper works on display, a couple of the stories I didn’t really get the resolution at all or did not find them  especially suspenseful.  Still, it was enjoyable to meet up with Manfred, Gonsalez and Poiccart for one further outing.  They have certainly evolved towards  respectability and now have a detective agency in Curzon Street, London, yet still trade on their disreputable past where their methods of dispatching offenders were more brutal (and permanent!).  Wallace rarely lets a story go by without a reference back to this.  It does seem a little odd to read crime/adventure fiction where past achievements are being saluted more than the present plotlines but readers would not have been sympathetic to these characters for a quarter of a century without them changing their ways.

I’ve probably read enough Edgar Wallace for a time.  David Stuart Davies who penned the introduction to the volume I read feels that Wallace would have gone on to produce more for these characters had he not died in 1932.  He does also acknowledge that, in this collection “The tales are entertaining and even amusing at times rather than thrilling.”

It was Christopher Fowler who reminded me of Wallace in his “Book Of Forgotten Authors” and he mentions the oft-repeated tale of this prolific writer that if anyone phoned him and was told he was busy writing a book they’d reply “I’ll wait.”  I have enjoyed, to varying degrees, these six of apparently 175+ novels he produced in his lifetime.

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Again The Three was published in 1928.  I read the version published in “The Complete Four Just Men” paperback from Wordsworth.