Crooked House by Agatha Christie

September’s topic for the Read Christie 2021 challenge is ‘a story featuring a school’. I’ve already read the obvious choice, Cat Among the Pigeons, so I was grateful to the challenge hosts for providing a list of alternative suggestions. Crooked House doesn’t involve an actual school, but it does fit the general theme as it features two children who are being home-schooled.

First published in 1949, this was apparently one of Christie’s own favourites; in the foreword, she says that ‘practically everybody has liked Crooked House, so I am justified in my own belief that it is one of my best’. Now that I’ve read it, I can say that although it’s not one of my absolute favourites, it would definitely be in my top ten so far. It’s one of her standalones – with no Poirot, Marple or other famous detective – and, like several of her other novels, has a title inspired by a children’s nursery rhyme:

There was a crooked man, and he went a crooked mile,
He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile;
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

The ‘crooked house’ of the title is a mansion in the quiet London suburb of Swinley Dean and the people who ‘all live together’ there are ten members of the Leonides family. When the family patriarch, old Aristide Leonides, a Greek businessman, is found poisoned by his own eye medicine, suspicion immediately falls on his second wife, the much younger Brenda. It would certainly be more convenient for the rest of the family if Brenda could be proved to be the murderer – none of them like her and believe her to have married Aristide for his money – but so far there is no real evidence against her. Aristide’s eldest granddaughter, Sophia, is desperate to know the truth as she feels it won’t be fair to marry her fiancé, Charles Hayward, while a scandal is hanging over her family. As it happens, Charles is the son of the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard so, joining forces with Chief Inspector Taverner, the detective assigned to the crime, he sets out to solve the mystery so that he and Sophia will be free to marry.

One of the things I loved about this book was that the murderer really could have been anybody. Brenda is initially the main suspect as there are hints that she has been having an affair with Laurence Brown, tutor to Sophia’s younger siblings Eustace and Josephine, and would therefore need Aristide out of the way. However, Aristide’s eldest son Roger also appears to have a clear motive involving money and the company business, while his younger son Philip could have committed the murder out of jealousy. Then there are the brothers’ two wives, Clemency and Magda, and a spinster aunt, Edith de Haviland. Any of these people could have had reasons for wanting the old man dead, as well as the knowledge and opportunity to carry out the crime. At no point does Christie become too concerned with the technical details of the murder or get bogged down with discussions of alibis and timings, concentrating instead on motives, personalities and relationships – my favourite kind of mystery novel!

I didn’t guess who did it, of course. The correct solution did cross my mind once or twice, but I dismissed it as unlikely because I was so convinced that it was somebody else. I’m annoyed with myself for not working it out as I can see now that the clues were all there in plain sight!

Next month’s Read Christie theme, if anyone wants to join in, is ‘a story set on a mode of transport’. I’m probably going to read Death on the Nile, but there are plenty of others you could choose, including Murder on the Orient Express, Death in the Clouds or The Mystery of the Blue Train.

Book 3 read for R.I.P. XVI

Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie

August’s theme for the Read Christie 2021 challenge is ‘a story set by the seaside’, which seemed the perfect opportunity to pick up an unread Poirot novel, Evil Under the Sun. It’s set on an island off the coast of Devon, where Hercule Poirot is on holiday at the exclusive Jolly Roger Hotel.

Christie begins by introducing us to all of the people staying at the hotel, including Arlena Stuart, a beautiful former actress. Arlena is described by one of the other characters as ‘the personification of evil’ – and she certainly seems to be causing plenty of trouble. Fellow guest Patrick Redfern can’t take his eyes off her and Arlena appears to be encouraging his attentions, regardless of how hurtful this is to Patrick’s young wife, Christine. Arlena’s own husband, Captain Marshall, claims he hasn’t noticed her behaviour, but is he telling the truth? Meanwhile, Marshall’s teenage daughter from a previous marriage hates her stepmother and resents the way she has come into the family home, bringing scandal and unhappiness with her.

When Arlena’s dead body is found at Pixy Cove, a secluded part of the island, almost everyone becomes a suspect. It’s fortunate that Poirot is already on the scene and can begin investigating immediately! In fact, as he later tells his friend, Captain Hastings, he had begun even before the murder took place…

Hastings said, staring: “But the murder hadn’t happened, then.”

Hercule Poirot sighed. He said: “But already, mon cher, it was very clearly indicated.”

“Then why didn’t you stop it?”

And Hercule Poirot, with a sigh, said as he had said once before in Egypt, that if a person is determined to commit murder it is not easy to prevent them. He does not blame himself for what happened. It was, according to him, inevitable.

Having just read three Miss Marple novels in a row for Read Christie, it made a nice change to get back to Poirot for this month’s read. I usually prefer the Poirots to the Marples and Evil Under the Sun – first published in 1941 – is another good one. Setting the story on a private island, for the use of the hotel guests only, is not just an atmospheric setting but also a clever one as it immediately limits the suspects to those already on the island at the beginning of the book. With his understanding of the kind of person Arlena was, Poirot is quickly able to pick out one suspect as the most likely culprit, but due to timings and alibis it seems impossible that this person could have committed the crime. As the novel progresses, more clues emerge, along with the usual red herrings and misdirections Christie likes to throw in our way!

I didn’t manage to solve the mystery, but once the solution was revealed I could see how perfectly all of the clues fitted together – like a jigsaw puzzle, as Poirot describes it. It did seem that the way in which the crime was carried out depended on a lot of good luck and on people behaving in a certain manner, but I still think Christie was fair with the reader and I have no complaints. I’m now looking forward to September’s book, which will be Crooked House.

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

This month’s theme for Read Christie 2021 is ‘a story starring a vicar’ and the chosen title is an obvious one – The Murder at the Vicarage, which was first published in 1930 and is the first book in the Miss Marple series. I have read most of the later Marple novels, but never this one and I thought it would be interesting to go back to the beginning and read the book that introduced Miss Marple to the world of crime fiction.

The novel is set, like many of the other Marple novels, in the village of St Mary Mead, a place where everyone knows everyone else and nobody’s behaviour goes unnoticed! When Colonel Protheroe is found dead in the study at the vicarage, shot while waiting for the vicar to return home, Miss Marple and the other villagers immediately begin to gossip and to speculate on who the murderer could be. At first suspicion falls upon Anne Protheroe, the Colonel’s unhappy wife, and Lawrence Redding, the man with whom she has been having an affair. However, Colonel Protheroe was not a popular man and there is no shortage of other suspects – Miss Marple herself insists that she can think of at least seven.

The story is narrated by the vicar, Leonard Clement, who is drawn into the mystery not only due to the murder victim being found in his study, but also because the people of St Mary Mead see him as a trusted friend in whom they can confide and share pieces of information they prefer not to give to the police. The vicar’s narrative is both intelligent and amusing, as he reflects on his household, his domestic arrangements and his relationship with his younger wife, Griselda, as well as carrying out his own investigations into the murder case.

Someone else who is investigating the murder for herself is Miss Marple – and of course she finds her way to the solution before the police do, using her knowledge of human nature and her powers of observation. Miss Marple as she appears in this first novel is slightly different from the woman we meet in the later books in the series and is not particularly well liked by her neighbours, who see her as someone who goes around poking her nose into everyone else’s business. Unlike in some of the other books, where she seems to have been added to the story almost as an afterthought and the plot would have worked just as well without her, in this one she is there from beginning to end – often just in the background, but everything she says and does and every suggestion she makes turns out to be vital to the solving of the mystery!

Although I did enjoy this book, particularly as I found it such a difficult one to solve – I think I suspected almost everyone and allowed myself to get distracted by all the red herrings Christie throws into the plot – it took me a while to get into it. There were so many characters to keep track of and apart from the vicar and his wife and Miss Marple I didn’t really engage with any of them. I found the second half of the book much more compelling, though, as the plot became more and more complex and clever. I have read three Miss Marple mysteries in a row now for the Read Christie challenge, so I’m in the mood for something different next month. The August theme is ‘a story set by the seaside’ and I’m thinking about the Poirot novel Evil Under the Sun.

Nemesis by Agatha Christie

This month, for Read Christie 2021, the theme is ‘a story featuring a garden’ and the suggested title is Nemesis, a late Miss Marple mystery published in 1971.

Nemesis is an unusual Marple novel because for the first half of the book it’s not really clear what the mystery is that she’s trying to solve. All we do know is that Mr Rafiel, a rich man whom Miss Marple met previously in A Caribbean Mystery (which I haven’t read), has died, leaving her a large sum of money in his will on the condition that she must agree to investigate a crime for him. The only problem is, he doesn’t tell her what sort of crime it is or what she will need to do – only that he remembers her flair for justice and her nickname ‘Nemesis’.

Intrigued by Mr Rafiel’s request and tempted by the money, Miss Marple decides to accept the mission – and promptly receives an invitation to join a tour of Britain’s historic houses and gardens. During the tour she gradually uncovers the details of a crime committed several years earlier and discovers at last what Mr Rafiel wants her to do.

I don’t really want to say much more about the plot of this particular Christie novel because I think part of the fun is in wondering what the mystery is going to be and which of the people Miss Marple meets on the tour are going to be involved in it. Once the crime is revealed and she is able to start her investigations, it becomes more of a conventional mystery novel and I don’t think it’s as strong as some of the other Marples. Several of the clues seemed very obvious and I was able to solve some of it (although not all of it).

I was pleased to find that Miss Marple is present in the story from the beginning all the way through to the end; I’ve often complained that she appears too briefly, so it was nice to spend an entire novel with her this time. I loved the way she uses her apparent absent-mindedness, frailty and ‘twittering’ to fool the people around her into thinking she is a harmless, silly old woman, while all the time her brain is working away, storing information, making observations and staying one step ahead of everyone else. I should warn you, though, that she does express some disturbing views on the subject of rape – views that, unfortunately, a lot of people still hold today. Apart from that, this is an entertaining, if not particularly outstanding, Marple novel and it looks as though I’ll be reading another one soon as July’s selection is Murder at the Vicarage.

A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie

The May prompt for the Read Christie 2021 Challenge is ‘a story featuring tea’.  I would have had no idea which Christie novels fit that theme, but as ever the challenge hosts provided a list of suggestions and this one, A Pocket Full of Rye, turned out to be perfect.   

First published in 1953, the novel opens with London businessman Rex Fortescue being served his morning tea in his office by his secretary.  When Fortescue dies in hospital shortly afterwards and the cause of death is said to be taxine, a poison found in yew trees, the tea is naturally blamed.  However, the autopsy suggests that the poisoning must have actually taken place earlier that morning, while Fortescue was eating breakfast at his home, Yew Tree Lodge.  This widens the circle of potential suspects to include his wife, his three children and their spouses, and an assortment of servants.  Inspector Neele is brought in to lead the investigation, but his only real clue is a handful of rye found in Fortescue’s pocket.

Neele believes he is close to identifying the culprit, but a second murder forces him to think again.  It is only when Miss Marple arrives at Yew Tree Lodge, having read about the murders in the newspaper, that a connection is spotted with the popular children’s rhyme, “Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye”.  Inspector Neele may be a clever man with a sharp mind, but it will take Miss Marple’s knowledge of Mother Goose, blackbirds and human nature to solve this particular mystery.

I usually seem to prefer Christie’s Poirot novels to her Miss Marple ones, but I really enjoyed this book; it’s one of my favourite Marples so far, along with A Murder is Announced. I loved the nursery rhyme element – although it’s maybe not all that relevant to the overall solving of the mystery, it does add some fun to the plot. I can’t say that I loved the characters, but as Neele himself describes them as “all very unpleasant people”, we’re obviously not supposed to – and the fact that they are so unpleasant means that there are plenty of suspects. For once, I did correctly identify who was behind the murders, but I think it was really just a lucky guess; I certainly didn’t work everything out and I needed Miss Marple to explain all the details for me. Sadly, though, we don’t spend a lot of time with her in this book. She doesn’t appear until almost halfway through and then we don’t see very much of her actually investigating the mystery…which makes it all the more impressive that she manages to solve it ahead of Inspector Neele!

I’m enjoying taking part in Read Christie this year. I’ve read five great books in the first five months and am looking forward to another one in June!

Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie – #1936Club

This is the second book I’ve read for the 1936 Club (hosted by Karen and Simon) and an obvious one for me as I’m also taking part in Read Christie 2021 this year. The monthly prompt for Read Christie is ‘a story set before WWII’, which makes Murder in Mesopotamia, published in 1936, the perfect choice!

Murder in Mesopotamia is a Poirot mystery and one of several to feature a first person narrator – usually Captain Hastings, but in this case Nurse Amy Leatheran. At the beginning of the novel she agrees to travel to the site of an archaeological dig near Hassanieh in Iraq to nurse the wife of the expedition leader, Dr Leidner. Louise Leidner is being blamed by some of the other archaeologists for causing tension on this year’s dig, but when Nurse Leatheran arrives at the site what she finds is a nervous, frightened woman who claims to be receiving threatening letters from a former husband. A few days later, Louise is found dead in her bedroom, having been hit on the head by a blunt object. It seems impossible that a stranger could have entered the site without being seen, therefore the murderer must be someone on the dig…but who?

When I first began to read, I couldn’t help making comparisons with They Came to Baghdad, one of my favourite Christie novels, which features lots of colourful descriptions of Iraq. The sense of place in this one isn’t quite as strong – and in fact, we see very little of Iraq beyond the confines of the dig site – but there’s still plenty of atmosphere. The descriptions we do get of the dig and the various roles of the members of the expedition are fascinating and feel authentic, which is to be expected as Christie herself was married to an archaeologist, Max Mallowan, and often accompanied him on digs. Not only could she draw on her own personal knowledge and experience in the writing of this novel, she also apparently based some of the characters on people she knew.

Nurse Leatheran is a very opinionated narrator who doesn’t hold back on her views of ‘Foreigners’ (including Poirot), but apart from that I quite enjoyed her narration. We get to know the other participants in the dig through her eyes and, because she is an outsider, meeting all of these people for the first time, we can never be completely sure whether or not she is giving us an accurate impression of them. Poirot himself appears halfway through the novel, conveniently passing through Hassanieh after working on a case in Syria – and we are told that a week later, after solving this mystery, he will go on to investigate the Murder on the Orient Express.

As usual, I didn’t manage to solve the mystery myself. I came up with a few theories, but none of them were correct, which isn’t surprising as the final solution is so far-fetched I don’t think I would ever have thought of it! The method by which the murder is carried out seems unlikely, if not impossible, but the motive relies on us accepting something which I found impossible to believe. Still, this was an entertaining read and another great 1936 book.

Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie

The March theme for the Read Christie 2021 challenge is ‘a story featuring a society figure’. I had narrowed my choices down to the Poirot novel Lord Edgware Dies and the Colonel Race mystery Sparkling Cyanide. As I had just read a Poirot in February and have another one lined up for April, I decided to go with this one, Sparkling Cyanide. First published in 1945, the novel is an extended version of one of Christie’s short stories, Yellow Iris, which I haven’t read – but apparently the culprit is someone different in that story, so both are worth reading.

The novel begins one year after the death of Rosemary Barton, a beautiful heiress who had been celebrating her birthday at the Luxembourg restaurant with friends and family. The cause of death was believed to be cyanide in Rosemary’s champagne and it was assumed that she had committed suicide due to depression following an illness. Her husband George accepted the verdict at the time but has now received some anonymous letters stating that Rosemary was actually murdered. Sure that the murderer must have been one of the other people at the table, George decides to recreate the dinner party by inviting the same guests to the same restaurant in the hope that he will be able to identify the culprit. However, things don’t go according to plan and the evening ends with a second death…

The characterisation in this book is very strong and Christie begins by giving us one chapter from the perspective of each of the six dinner party guests, so that the nature of their relationship with Rosemary and their thoughts and feelings about her are clear from the start. It is quickly established that each of them had a possible motive for wanting Rosemary dead, but it doesn’t seem at first that any of them actually had the opportunity to carry out the murder. With the second death, things become even more complicated as this murder appears to be an almost impossible crime. I very rarely manage to solve an Agatha Christie mystery, but this is one that I found particularly difficult, despite paying close attention to the descriptions of the seating plans in the restaurant and even sketching a few diagrams! The eventual explanation, when it comes, seems quite unlikely and relies on a certain sequence of events that could easily have happened in a different way with a different result. However, I didn’t feel cheated as I don’t think any clues were withheld from us – I just didn’t put them together correctly!

The detective in this novel is Colonel Race rather than one of Christie’s more famous detectives such as Poirot or Marple – not that he really seems to do a lot of detecting. In fact, one of the suspects makes a bigger contribution to the solving of the mystery than he does. Still, Race is a straightforward, unobtrusive character who just quietly gets on with his investigations, makes mistakes now and then and isn’t afraid to admit that he has got things wrong. This is the first book I’ve read in which he appears; I think there are only three others, but as I’m hoping to read or re-read all of Christie’s novels eventually I’ll be meeting him again at some point.