The Hollow by Agatha Christie

March’s theme for the Read Christie 2020 Challenge was ‘a Christie story adapted for the stage’ and with several unread options to choose from, I settled on The Hollow, a Poirot novel first published in 1946. Christie herself said this book was “the one I ruined by the introduction of Poirot” and in fact, her famous detective doesn’t appear in the stage version at all.

The novel begins with the eccentric Lucy Angkatell preparing to welcome several friends and family members to her home, The Hollow, for the weekend. These include John Christow, a successful London doctor, and his timid, downtrodden wife, Gerda, who seems unable to do anything right. With Henrietta Savernake, a talented sculptor with whom John has been having an affair, also attending the house party, it’s clear that tensions will be running high – and to complicate things further, the beautiful actress Veronica Cray, a former girlfriend of John’s, just happens to be staying in a cottage nearby.

Christie takes her time setting the scene and introducing us to the people who are gathering at The Hollow, rounding out each character and exploring the complex relationships between them. As well as those I’ve already mentioned above, there’s also Sir Henry, Lucy Angkatell’s husband, and three younger cousins: Edward, who has hopes of marrying Henrietta; David, a sullen and humourless young student; and Midge, the ‘poor relation’ who works for a living. The characterisation is excellent and by the time another guest – Hercule Poirot – arrives for Sunday lunch, we have been given a good understanding of all the undercurrents and resentments simmering beneath the surface.

As Poirot reaches the house, he witnesses what appears to be an artificially staged murder: John Christow lies bleeding to death at the edge of a swimming pool, while his wife, Gerda, stands over him with a gun in her hand and several of the other characters approach from different directions. At first assuming this is a game designed to test his skills as a detective, Poirot quickly discovers that it is all too real and that John is dying. But surely there is more to the scene that meets the eye? Has Gerda really murdered her husband or could there be another culprit?

I always enjoy reading Christie, but this particular book hasn’t become a favourite. Not all of them can, I suppose. There was nothing that I actually disliked about it and as I’ve said, the characters are excellent, very strongly drawn with plenty of depth and complexity – I just felt that, as a mystery, it doesn’t have quite the ingenuity and originality of some of her others. Apparently Christie describes this book in her autobiography as “in some ways rather more of a novel than a detective story” and I understand what she means. And while I don’t agree that Poirot ruins the book, I don’t think he adds a lot to it either. He doesn’t make his first appearance until a third of the way through and most of the investigating is actually done by Inspector Grange anyway, so I think the story could have worked just as well without Poirot.

But Poirot, of course, is the one who finally brings the investigation to its conclusion and leads us to the murderer. I wish I could say that I had solved the mystery too, but I didn’t – there were at least four characters I suspected and I couldn’t make up my mind between them. Maybe I will have more success in solving the next Christie mystery I read: the April topic for the challenge is ‘a story Christie disguised’, which sounds intriguing, doesn’t it?

A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie

February’s book of the month for the Read Christie 2020 Challenge is A Murder is Announced, a Miss Marple novel from 1950. This month’s theme for the challenge is ‘a story Christie loved’ and apparently this is one that she mentioned in a 1972 letter to a fan as being a current favourite. Now that I’ve read it, I can see why she liked it so much.

A Murder is Announced is set in the quiet little village of Chipping Cleghorn where, as the novel opens, the residents are waking up to an unusual notice in their local newspaper:

A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.

The villagers are intrigued and, believing it must be an invitation to a party game of some sort, they all make their way to Little Paddocks, the home of Miss Letitia Blacklock, at the stated time. Miss Blacklock herself denies having anything to do with the announcement – as do the other members of her household – but she makes her neighbours welcome anyway. They are all gathered together inside when the clock strikes 6.30, the lights go out and shots are fired. When the lights are turned back on, a man is found dead on the floor. It seems it wasn’t a game after all…

Of all the Christie novels I’ve read, this has one of the best openings: first an introduction to each character in turn as we jump from house to house as newspapers are opened and the announcement is read; then the murder scene itself – a wonderful set piece with all of the suspects together in one place. We are given many of the clues we need in that scene and the rest in the chapters that follow, so that the reader has at least a chance of solving the mystery before the truth is revealed. I managed to work out parts of it, but not the whole thing and the eventual solution came as a surprise to me.

What really makes this book stand out, though, is the excellent characterisation, with characters drawn from a range of different social backgrounds. There’s Bunny – Miss Bunner – an old school friend of Miss Blacklock’s who has fallen on hard times and has been invited to stay at Little Paddocks; there are Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd, two unmarried women who live together and whose relationship is portrayed with warmth and affection; Phillipa Haymes, a young mother left to raise her son alone in the aftermath of the Second World War; Colonel Easterbrook, who thinks he knows all there is to know about India; and the Reverend Julian Harmon and his cheerful, tactless wife ‘Bunch’, who happens to be the goddaughter of Jane Marple.

It is through her connection with Bunch that Miss Marple comes into the story (surprisingly late – the murder has been committed and an investigation by the police is well under way before she makes her first appearance). Miss Marple solves the mystery both through the usual methods of observing, deducting and asking questions, and through her knowledge of small villages like Chipping Cleghorn and how they have changed since the war. ‘Fifteen years ago, one knew who everybody was,’ she says, ‘but now the big houses have been sold, and the cottages have been converted and changed. And people just come – and all you know about them is what they say of themselves.’

The one aspect of this book that I didn’t like was the portrayal of Mitzi, the cook at Little Paddocks who is a refugee from an unspecified Central European country. We are told that Mitzi has had some traumatic experiences during the war, yet the other characters seem to treat her with an unusual level of unkindness and insensitivity, ridiculing her for her screaming and crying and fear of the police. That was the only thing that slightly spoiled my enjoyment of what was otherwise a perfect murder mystery.

This year’s Read Christie challenge is only two months old and already I’ve read two great books that I’ve loved – this one and Murder on the Orient Express. I’m looking forward to next month’s selection!

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

The January theme for the Read Christie 2020 challenge is ‘a book that changed Christie’s life’. The challenge is hosted by agathachristie.com and their selection for this month was Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, but that would be a re-read for me so I chose a different title from their list of alternative suggestions: Murder on the Orient Express!

Murder on the Orient Express is one of Christie’s best known books and has been adapted several times for television, film and stage, but this is precisely why I’ve been putting off reading it for so long – I already knew the solution to the mystery and thought that might affect my enjoyment of the book. Of course, no adaptation is going to be exactly the same as the written version, and once I started reading I could see that some parts of the story were familiar but not all of it.

At the beginning of the novel, Hercule Poirot is in Turkey when he receives a telegram requesting him to return to London. He attempts to book a first-class berth on the Orient Express which is leaving Istanbul that night, but is told that the train is unusually full. It is only with the assistance of Monsieur Bouc, the director of the railway company, who happens to be an old friend of Poirot’s, that he manages to obtain a space in a second-class compartment. Once on board the train, Poirot observes that his fellow passengers are a very diverse group of people of different nationalities, backgrounds and classes. Among them are an American businessman and his secretary, a Russian princess and her German maid, a British Colonel, a Hungarian Count and Countess and several others.

It is the American businessman, Mr Ratchett, who is found stabbed to death in his compartment just after the train comes to a stop in heavy snow near Vinkovci (in what was then part of Yugoslavia). It seems clear that the murderer must be one of the other passengers on the train, but which one? As Poirot begins to investigate, he uncovers clues that, rather than revealing the truth, seem to complicate things further – and the statements he takes from the passengers appear to contradict each other, making the situation even more confusing. Armed with only his ‘little grey cells’, can Poirot solve the mystery?

Yes, of course he can…and for once, so could I, thanks to already knowing the basic outline of the story before I began. It would certainly have been a better – or at least a different – experience to have read the book with no idea of who was responsible for the murder, but as that wasn’t possible, I still enjoyed watching Poirot sort through the evidence and put the pieces of the puzzle together. I think Christie does give us all the information we need, but it’s difficult to say whether I would have been able to guess the solution anyway. Probably not, as I usually don’t.

As well as the mystery, I loved the atmosphere of the book and the claustrophobic feel Christie creates with the simple idea of a train stuck in snow and a murderer onboard. The characterisation is interesting too, although some of the assumptions made about the actions and behaviour of the various suspects based on their nationality feel very dated – for example, M. Bouc’s theory that the murderer must be Italian because the knife is an Italian weapon and Poirot’s reply that he disagrees because the careful, long-term planning requires an ‘Anglo-Saxon brain’. It seems that every passenger on the train has formed a stereotypical view of each of the others and this gives us some insights into attitudes of the time (the book was published in 1934).

Going back to the theme of this month’s Read Christie 2020, I wondered how this book in particular was one that had ‘changed Christie’s life’. Well, it seems that the Orient Express itself did, as she travelled on the train in 1928 to attend an archaeological dig in Syria and it was during this trip that she met the man who would become her second husband. That can certainly be considered a life-changing experience! Anyway, I really enjoyed this book and am looking forward to February’s selection.

The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie

Last year I took part in the Read Christie 2019 challenge hosted by the Agatha Christie website. The idea was to read twelve Christie books – one per month – corresponding to twelve different categories. I didn’t manage to join in with all twelve, but I read eight of them and enjoyed them all, particularly The ABC Murders, Dumb Witness, and the book for December, The Pale Horse. There’s a new BBC adaptation of The Pale Horse coming soon (not sure of the exact dates, but sometime in 2020) so I’m pleased to have had a chance to read it first.

The Pale Horse is one of Christie’s standalones and doesn’t feature either of her famous detectives, Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, although there are a few appearances from another recurring character, Ariadne Oliver. The story is narrated by Mark Easterbrook, not a detective but a writer and historian who is researching a book on Mughal architecture. At the beginning of the novel, Mark witnesses two young women fighting in a London coffee shop. A few days later, he is surprised to hear that one of the girls, Tommy Tuckerton, has died of what appear to be natural causes, unconnected with the fight. Presumably this is just a coincidence, but soon afterwards Mark learns of a list of names found in the shoe of a murdered priest – and one of those names is Tuckerton. When Mark recognises another of the names, that of his godmother Lady Hesketh-Dubois, who has also recently died, he becomes convinced that something sinister is happening.

With the help of his crime writer friend Ariadne Oliver and a young woman called Ginger Corrigan, Mark begins to investigate and finds a series of clues leading him to a former inn, The Pale Horse, which is now home to three witches. Not real witches, of course…or are they? Mark isn’t sure what to think, but it certainly seems that The Pale Horse is well known within the community as the place to go if you want to put a curse on somebody.

Christie’s novels are always entertaining, but this is one I particularly enjoyed. The plot intrigued me from the beginning; it seemed such an unusual set of circumstances and while I didn’t really believe that the three women of The Pale Horse were able to kill people through supernatural means, I couldn’t work out how else the murders were being committed. It was all quite unsettling, with a real sense that something evil was taking place. I had to avoid reading this book late at night!

It was good to see Ariadne Oliver again, who plays a small but important part in the solution of the mystery and in her role of crime novelist gives Christie an opportunity to put a little bit of herself into the story. There are plenty of other memorable characters too, though, from the three witches to Ginger Corrigan to Mr Osborne, a pharmacist who witnesses one of the murders and insists that he knows who the culprit is, despite all evidence to the contrary!

The Read Christie Challenge is happening again in 2020, with a new set of monthly categories. January’s theme is ‘a book that changed Christie’s life’ and we have been given a few suggestions to choose from. I have opted for Murder on the Orient Express!

Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

This is one of the Christie novels I have been particularly looking forward to reading, as so many people list it amongst their favourites. I had hoped to read it last month as it was September’s selection for the 2019 Read Christie Challenge, but it ended up having to be an October read for me instead.

Published in 1942, Five Little Pigs is one of Christie’s Poirot mysteries, but it is slightly different from the others in that Poirot is trying to solve a crime which took place many years before the novel opens. Carla Lemarchant has received a letter from her mother, Caroline, who has died in prison while serving a life sentence for the murder of her husband, Amyas Crale, sixteen years ago. In the letter, Caroline assures her daughter of her innocence – and because Carla knows that her mother was always a woman who told the truth, she believes her. Hoping to find out what really happened, Carla approaches Hercule Poirot and asks him to investigate.

This is not Poirot’s usual sort of mystery – there is no active crime scene to visit and any evidence is likely to have been lost or destroyed long ago – but he agrees to Carla’s request. He begins by collecting statements from the five people who, other than Caroline, had been present on the day of the murder: the stockbroker Phillip Blake and his reclusive brother Meredith; Elsa Greer, with whom Amyas Crale was thought to be having an affair; the governess Cecelia Williams; and Caroline’s younger sister, Angela, who was just a teenager at the time. If Caroline was innocent, then one of these five must have been the murderer – but will it still be possible to identify the real culprit now that so much time has passed?

I can understand why Five Little Pigs is so highly regarded by Christie fans. The characterisation is excellent; the suspects are well drawn and have believable motives for wanting Amyas dead, and there is evidence of character development too, in the contrast between their present day selves and the people they had been sixteen years earlier. The structure is clever too – the statement each character writes is given in full and although I thought at first that I would find it repetitive reading about the same events five times in a row, that wasn’t really a problem. Each account of that fateful day is slightly different and each one makes us question what we were told in the previous one. It’s only once Poirot has all five accounts in front of him and has spoken to all five of the writers in person that he can piece everything together and solve the mystery.

I enjoyed this book but it hasn’t become a personal favourite and there are other Poirots I’ve liked more. The problem I had with this one was that, although I appreciated the structure and the characters, I didn’t find the mystery itself particularly imaginative or entertaining. I thought The ABC Murders and Dumb Witness both had better plots, to give two examples that I’ve read this year for the Read Christie challenge. Having just caught up with September’s book at the end of October, I am going to skip October’s book for the challenge (a new short story collection, The Last Séance) and will wait to see what November’s choice will be.

And if you’re wondering, the title of Five Little Pigs refers to the fact that the five suspects remind Poirot of the children’s rhyme, “This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed at home; This little piggy had roast beef, this little piggy had none; And this little piggy went ‘wee wee wee’ all the way home!”

This is book #6 read for this year’s R.I.P. event.

Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie

I have completely fallen behind with the monthly reads for the 2019 Read Christie challenge. I started to read this one in July, when we were challenged to read a Tommy and Tuppence book, but with one thing and another I didn’t get very far with it and ended up reading most of it last weekend. I’ll have to catch up with the August and September books at a later date.

Anyway, having already read Christie’s first Tommy and Tuppence book, The Secret Adversary, a few years ago, I decided to continue to work through the series in order and read Partners in Crime next. First published in 1929, this book is set about six years after the previous one and Tommy and Tuppence are now a happily married couple. Not too happily, though…Tuppence is getting bored and longing for adventure. As luck would have it, at this point their old friend Mr Carter, who works in government intelligence, arrives with a proposition that will provide all the adventure anyone could wish for.

Mr Theodore Blunt of Blunt’s International Detective Agency is under arrest for spying and Mr Carter wants Tommy and Tuppence to take over the running of the agency, with Tommy posing as Mr Blunt. This will allow them to intercept any more enemy messages and letters that are sent to the office – especially those written on blue paper and bearing a Russian stamp – and in the meantime, they can take on cases and investigate crimes. Joined by their young assistant, Albert, whom we met in The Secret Adversary, they rename themselves ‘Blunt’s Brilliant Detectives’ and then sit back and wait for their first case to begin…

What follows is a series of short stories, each dealing with a separate investigation, loosely linked by the spying storyline in the background. With cases of missing women, stolen jewels, suspected forgeries, poisoned chocolates and buried treasure to solve – and, of course, several murderers to identify – Tommy and Tuppence have more than enough to keep themselves busy, but to entertain themselves further they decide to investigate each crime in the style of one of their favourite fictional detectives. This is where my own knowledge of early 20th century crime fiction let me down as with the exceptions of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Baroness Orczy’s Old Man in the Corner, I was unfamiliar with most of the detectives being parodied. It didn’t really matter – the stories can still be enjoyed and understood anyway, but I did feel as though I was missing something at times.

Some of the plots are stronger than others; there was one story in particular (The Unbreakable Alibi) where I guessed the solution immediately and was surprised that it took Tommy and Tuppence so long to work it out! All of the stories are fun to read, though, which is partly due to the characters of Tommy and Tuppence themselves; there’s certainly never a dull moment when they are around! My only disappointment is that there are only another three books in this series to read. I am looking forward to the next one, N or M?, but first I’m hoping I might be able to squeeze in this month’s Read Christie selection, Five Little Pigs, before the end of September.

The Mysterious Mr Quin by Agatha Christie

Have you met Mr Satterthwaite and his mysterious friend, Mr Harley Quin? I hadn’t, until I saw that the book selected for Read Christie 2019 this month was The Mysterious Mr Quin, a collection of short stories published in 1930 and featuring a very unusual sort of detective. In fact, he is not really a detective at all, but more of a catalyst who “has a power – an almost uncanny power – of showing you what you have seen with your own eyes, of making clear to you what you have heard with your own ears…”

There are twelve stories in the collection, all of which originally appeared separately in various magazines throughout the 1920s. They all stand alone as individual mysteries but reading them in the order they appear in the book is very effective as each one seems to build on the one before – and the twelfth story, Harlequin’s Lane, should definitely be read last.

The first story, The Coming of Mr Quin, sets the tone for the rest of the book. It begins with Mr Satterthwaite, an elderly English gentleman, attending a New Year’s Eve party at a country house when conversation turns to the suicide of Derek Capel, the former owner of the house. The suicide took place several years earlier, but is still unexplained. In the middle of this discussion, there is a knock at the door and Mr Satterthwaite’s friend Harley Quin appears, asking for shelter while his broken-down car is repaired. Mr Quin joins in the conversation and, by prompting Satterthwaite to ask relevant questions and to think carefully about the sequence of events, the truth behind Mr Capel’s death suddenly becomes obvious – and has important implications for some of the guests at the party that night.

Most of the other stories, with one or two exceptions, follow a similar format: Mr Satterthwaite is at a house party, an opera, on holiday, or attending some other sort of social gathering with his upper-class friends, when he becomes aware that one or more of his companions is hiding a secret – a criminal past, a thwarted love affair or an involvement in a murder. Mr Quin then makes a sudden appearance (sometimes in person and sometimes by leaving a message or cryptic clue) and steers Mr Satterthwaite in the right direction, enabling him to solve the mystery. Some of these mysteries have been unsolved for many years and Mr Quin claims that he is acting as an ‘advocate for the dead’, getting justice for long-ago victims of crimes, while also helping Mr Satterthwaite to influence people’s lives in the present.

Although Mr Satterthwaite is a rich man, with a comfortable, privileged lifestyle, I found him quite a sad and lonely character. He has never married and despite his busy social life his friendships seem to be mainly on a superficial level. He describes himself as a ‘looker-on at life’, someone who observes other people’s dramas without being involved in any himself. If it wasn’t for the fact that other characters in the book see and interact with Mr Quin, I could have believed that Mr Satterthwaite had invented him as an imaginary friend. There is certainly something surreal and otherworldly about Mr Quin, with his unexpected arrivals and departures, and the way his appearances are usually accompanied by a strange trick of the light – he is seen silhouetted against the setting sun, standing in front of a stained glass window, or illuminated by the sun shining through the trees.

This is the only collection of Mr Quin stories, although I think he and Mr Satterthwaite do make one or two appearances in other books or stories. I found this book quite different from anything else I’ve read by Christie and I’m loving the way taking part in this challenge is encouraging me to pick up titles I might otherwise have ignored in favour of the more popular Poirots and Marples.