4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie

This month’s theme for Read Christie 2022 is ‘a story featuring train travel’. I had already read most of the possibilities – The Mystery of the Blue Train, Murder on the Orient Express and The ABC Murders – but hadn’t yet read the Miss Marple novel 4.50 from Paddington, so that was my choice for this month.

The ‘train travel’ element of the story appears in the very first chapter, with the elderly Elspeth McGillicuddy taking a train to the village of St Mary Mead to visit her friend, Miss Jane Marple. Mrs McGillicuddy happens to glance out of the window just as her train passes another train running parallel in the same direction. At that moment, a blind flies open in the window of the other train and she is horrified to witness a man standing with his back to her strangling a woman. She reports the incident to the ticket collector and the police are informed, but when no dead body is found on the train Mrs McGillicuddy is dismissed as an old woman with an overactive imagination. Miss Marple, however, knows her friend is telling the truth and is determined not to let the matter drop.

Convinced that the body may have been thrown from the train as it passed the grounds of Rutherford Hall, Miss Marple enlists the help of Lucy Eyelesbarrow, a young woman she knows who has established a reputation for herself as a professional and efficient cook and housekeeper. Lucy’s skills mean she is very much in demand and never short of work, but Miss Marple persuades her to take a position at Rutherford Hall for a few weeks so that she can search for the body while she’s there. Settling into her new job, Lucy begins to get to know the residents of Rutherford Hall – the family patriarch Luther Crackenthorpe, his sons, daughter, in-laws and grandchildren – and begins to wonder whether their connection to the murder on the train really was a coincidence after all.

I found this a particularly enjoyable Miss Marple novel – probably in my top two or three. It seems that it has had some criticism due to the lack of clues and logical deductions and I do understand that complaint because we never find out exactly what leads Miss Marple to identify the correct suspect. However, I didn’t have a problem with this. The solution does make sense, even if we don’t know how she arrived at it, and the culprit was actually the person I suspected myself (again, not based on any real evidence – just a hunch!).

Although Miss Marple is the one who solves the mystery, we don’t really see very much of her in this book. Unable to infiltrate the Crackenthorpe household herself, she sends Lucy Eyelesbarrow in her place, which means a lot of the story is written from Lucy’s perspective. Luckily, Lucy is a great character – independent, intelligent and courageous. Several of the male Crackenthorpes are drawn to her and there’s a hint at the end of the book that she’s going to marry one of them. Which one she chooses is left for the reader to decide – although I’ve since discovered that Christie reveals Lucy’s choice in her Secret Notebooks, published in 2009.

There’s only one month left in this year’s Read Christie challenge and the December theme will be ‘a story containing precious jewels’. However, plans for Read Christie 2023 have already been announced and you can register your interest here: https://linktr.ee/OfficialAgathaChristie

Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

August’s theme for the Read Christie 2022 challenge is ‘a story set in a hot climate’, so the recommended title, Destination Unknown, which is set in North Africa, was the perfect choice. I was a bit apprehensive about reading this one because it doesn’t seem to get very good reviews and it’s certainly not one of Christie’s better known novels (in fact it’s one of only four of her books never to have been adapted for TV or film), but I found it entertaining enough.

We first meet our heroine, Hilary Craven, in a Casablanca hotel room, preparing to commit suicide. Her daughter has died, her marriage has broken down and she feels she has nothing to live for. Before she can go through with her plans, however, she is interrupted by Jessop, a British secret agent. Jessop has noticed a resemblance between Hilary and another woman, Olive Betterton, who has been fatally injured in a plane crash, and he has an interesting suggestion to make…

It is believed that Olive was on her way to Morocco to join her husband, Thomas Betterton, a renowned nuclear physicist who recently went missing in Paris. Betterton is one of several scientists from around the world who have all disappeared without trace. Jessop wants Hilary Craven to impersonate the dying woman in the hope that she will be able to locate Betterton and the other missing scientists. With nothing to lose, Hilary agrees.

As you can probably tell from my synopsis of the plot, this is not a murder mystery like most of Christie’s other books and it does not feature any of her famous characters such as Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple or Tommy and Tuppence. It’s much more of a thriller, with elements of spy/espionage fiction. I really enjoyed the first half of the novel – although the plot is undoubtedly a bit far-fetched and unlikely, I do like a good impersonation story and was interested to see how Hilary would cope with her task and where following Betterton’s trail would lead her to. I also loved the descriptions of Morocco and wished we could have spent more time in Casablanca and Fez before Hilary’s adventures took her off into the High Atlas mountains:

All about her were the walls of old Fez. Narrow winding streets, high walls, and occasionally, through a doorway, a glimpse of an interior or a courtyard, and moving all around her were laden donkeys, men with their burdens, boys, women veiled and unveiled, the whole busy secret life of this Moorish city. Wandering through the narrow streets she forgot everything else, her mission, the past tragedy of herself, even her life.

As is typical of Christie, the plot takes lots of twists and turns, there are some surprises and we are never sure which of the many characters Hilary meets can and cannot be trusted. However, later in the book, when we discover what has happened to the missing scientists, it all becomes quite bizarre and I felt that the motive behind the disappearances was quite weak and implausible. Remembering that the book was published in 1954, though, the world war which ended less than ten years earlier must have been on Christie’s mind, as well as post-war politics and the Cold War; there are references to creating a ‘new world order’ and a mysterious figure whose charisma and power of oration makes Hilary think of Hitler.

Hilary herself is less engaging than the heroines of some of Christie’s other thrillers, such as Anne Beddingfield in The Man in the Brown Suit and Victoria Jones in They Came to Baghdad, and the book overall is not as much fun as those two. I find the thrillers a nice change from the mysteries, though, and I did enjoy this one despite finding the first half much stronger than the second. I’m not sure whether I’ll take part in Read Christie in September – the theme is ‘a story with a female adventurer’ and the group read is They Came to Baghdad which, as I’ve just mentioned, I’ve already read (and loved, but don’t want to read again just yet). I might see if there’s an alternative title I could read to fit that theme instead, or maybe I’ll wait and join in again in October.

This is book 13/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie

July’s theme for Read Christie 2022 is ‘a story which takes place on holiday’; I didn’t take part in last month’s read as I’d already read the suggested title (Murder in Mesopotamia), but decided to join in this month with At Bertram’s Hotel.

This late Christie novel, first published in 1965, begins with Miss Marple arriving for a two-week stay at Bertram’s Hotel in London courtesy of her nephew who thought she might like to get away from the village of St Mary Mead for a while. The hotel is one that Miss Marple remembers fondly from her youth and, having heard that it has changed very little over the years, she is looking forward to staying there again. However, it turns out not to be quite the relaxing break she expected; first an elderly hotel guest, Canon Pennyfather, goes missing, then Miss Marple’s attention is drawn to the unusual behaviour of two more guests – the notorious Lady Sedgwick and her estranged teenage daughter, Elvira. It seems that something is not quite right about Bertram’s Hotel, but can Miss Marple help the police to discover exactly what is going on?

I enjoyed this book, although I don’t think it’s one of Christie’s best. There’s no central mystery to be solved – there’s the murder of a minor character which takes place late in the novel, but otherwise we hear about crimes that have happened ‘off the page’ rather than witnessing them ourselves. The sequence of events surrounding the disappearance of the absentminded Canon Pennyfather was fascinating, but again more of a subplot than the main focus of the story. What we do get is a growing sense of unease and a feeling that something is wrong without knowing precisely what it is.

I loved the portrayal of Bertram’s Hotel, which at first appears to be a quaint, old-fashioned establishment that has deliberately tried to preserve its Edwardian charm with the sort of atmosphere, furnishings and food that will appeal to a certain age and class of guest. As the story progresses, Miss Marple’s pleasure at finding the hotel just as she remembered it turns gradually to disappointment as she discovers that you can never really go back and that things don’t stay the same forever, no matter how much you want them to.

Sadly, Miss Marple herself doesn’t have a very big role to play in this novel. Chief Inspector Davy – known as ‘Father’ because he’s close to retirement age – is the person responsible for carrying out the investigations and we see more of him than we do of Miss Marple. However, as usual, she is the one who provides the vital clues and observations that enable the crimes to be solved and the culprits to be caught.

August’s Read Christie theme is a book ‘set in a hot climate’, if anyone wants to join in!

This is book 8/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

The May theme for Read Christie 2022 is “a story set in Europe” and The Murder on the Links is the perfect choice as the story takes place almost entirely in France.

First published in 1923, this is a very early Poirot novel (just the second in the series, in fact) and one of several to be narrated by Captain Arthur Hastings. Hastings, a close friend of Poirot’s, is on his way home to England from France when he meets a girl on the train who introduces herself only as ‘Cinderella’. For Hastings, it’s love at first sight, but when they part ways he doesn’t expect to ever see her again.

The next day, Hastings learns that Poirot has just received a letter from a Mr Paul Renauld requesting him to come to his home in France as soon as possible because he believes his life is in danger. The two set off at once, only to discover that Renauld had been murdered the night before, his body found on the new golf course which is under construction near his house. There are several suspects, but when Cinderella reappears and seems to have some involvement in the murder, Hastings will have to choose between his love for her and his loyalty to Poirot.

I enjoyed this, although I don’t think it’s one of the better Poirot novels I’ve read. None of the characters are particularly memorable or appealing; her characterisation would be stronger in later books in the series – maybe at this early stage she was still concentrating on developing the character of Poirot himself. In this book he has a rival – the French detective Monsieur Giraud – and we can see the contrast between their detecting methods. Poirot refers to Giraud as ‘a human foxhound’, someone who ‘sniffs out’ clues like footprints and cigarette ends while failing to see the bigger picture or to consider motive and psychology as well as physical evidence. Meanwhile, Giraud is equally scornful of Poirot’s approach to crime-solving. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you which of the two detectives will eventually solve the mystery!

I usually like the books narrated by Hastings, who is a sort of Watson to Poirot’s Sherlock Holmes. He provides a viewpoint close to Poirot, while also being as mystified as we are by Poirot’s methods and deductions. I did find him slightly irritating in this book, with his tendency to instantly fall in love with every young woman he meets, but the romantic subplot does have a purpose as it leads to Hastings departing for Argentina, only to make occasional reappearances for the rest of the series.

Overall, this is a typically clever and entertaining Christie novel, but probably not one that I’ll be tempted to re-read. As a final note, don’t be put off by the many covers of this book that show people playing golf – apart from the golf course being the location of the dead body, golf has absolutely nothing to do with the plot!

After the Funeral by Agatha Christie

This month’s theme for the Read Christie 2022 challenge is ‘a story Agatha wrote abroad’. After the Funeral, a Hercule Poirot mystery first published in 1953, doesn’t include any travel and is set entirely in England, but it was written while Christie was away on an archaeological dig with her husband Max.

After the Funeral begins, as the title suggests, just after the funeral of the wealthy Richard Abernethie with the family assembling to hear the reading of the will by his lawyer, Mr Entwhistle. As he has no surviving children of his own, it seems that Richard’s fortune is to be divided between his brother and sister, two of his sisters-in-law, and several of his nieces and nephews and their spouses. After hearing the terms of the will, Cora Lansquenet, Richard’s sister, remarks that her brother was murdered. This is not something that has occurred to anyone else, as they have all accepted that Richard died of natural causes, so Cora’s comments are not taken seriously. The next day, however, Cora herself is found dead, having been brutally murdered in her bed.

Mr Entwhistle, the lawyer, is convinced there must be a connection between the two deaths and begins to interview the family members, hoping that they will all be able to prove themselves innocent and avoid bringing shame on the family. As the mystery deepens, he decides that he needs to call in an expert – and so he contacts his friend, Hercule Poirot, who listens to the facts and agrees that an investigation is required…

This is maybe not one of the better known Poirot novels, but it’s one that I particularly enjoyed. After a confusing start – Christie throws a huge number of characters into the opening chapters and it takes a while to straighten out their relationships and remember who they all are – I became completely absorbed in this fascinating mystery, having a few guesses at the identity of the culprit and getting it wrong every time! It’s one of those mysteries where literally any of the characters (apart from Poirot, of course) could have been the murderer and the solution relies on a wonderful twist, which I don’t think many readers will have seen coming. Well done if you did, but I certainly didn’t.

Poirot himself doesn’t have a large part to play in the novel until the second half; before that, it’s actually Mr Entwhistle who is trying to investigate the deaths, by questioning suspects, speaking to doctors and establishing alibis. During that first half of the novel, I couldn’t help thinking that it wasn’t really essential for Poirot to appear in the story at all as Mr Entwhistle seemed to be doing such a good job! However, it’s Poirot’s ‘little grey cells’ that are necessary to spot that final crucial clue and solve the mystery.

Next month’s theme for the Read Christie challenge is ‘a story featuring adventure’. There are plenty of those to choose from!

The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie

A new year means a new Agatha Christie reading challenge! After participating in all twelve monthly reads for Read Christie 2021, I’m not planning to do the same again this year – I do love Christie, but there are so many other authors I want to read too. However, I will still be dipping into Read Christie 2022 throughout the year whenever I’m tempted by the monthly theme. The topic for January is ‘A story inspired by Agatha’s travels’ and the suggested book is The Man in the Brown Suit, one that I hadn’t read before and that sounded quite appealing to me.

Published in 1924, this book is not part of the Poirot or Marple series, although it does feature another of Christie’s recurring characters, Colonel Race. Like They Came to Baghdad or The Secret Adversary, it’s more thriller than mystery; a murder does take place near the beginning, but this is only a starting point and not the main focus of the novel.

Most of the novel is narrated by Anne Beddingfield, the recently orphaned daughter of a famous archaeologist. Finding herself alone in the world, with a small inheritance to spend, Anne longs for an adventure to come her way so she can imitate the heroines of her favourite books and films. This wish becomes reality when she witnesses an accident in a London tube station and picks up a piece of paper dropped by the doctor who examines the victim. On this scrap of paper are some numbers and the words ‘Kilmorden Castle’; Anne is sure that these are clues and that she has found the adventure she’s been waiting for. When a woman is found dead the next day in the home of Sir Eustace Pedler, Member of Parliament, a man in a brown suit is suspected of the crime. Convinced that the two incidents are related, Anne deciphers the clues on the paper and boards a ship sailing to Cape Town, hoping to track down the brown-suited man.

Anne is a wonderful narrator and her intelligence, courage and quick wits mean that she is often – although not always – one step ahead of the villains. However, there’s also a second narrator and that is Sir Eustace Pedler. Sir Eustace’s narrative is interspersed with Anne’s and takes the form of a diary in which, in contrast with Anne, he describes his dislike of adventure, as well as his frustration with his annoying secretary Mr Pagett. The diary entries add a lot of humour to the story and I enjoyed hearing Sir Eustace’s voice now and then as a change from Anne’s.

Christie’s novels are always entertaining, but this is one I found particularly fun to read. Stolen diamonds, a revolution, travel through South Africa, a criminal mastermind known only as the ‘Colonel’…there’s such a lot happening and so many things to enjoy. The one aspect of the novel that I didn’t like was the romance between Anne and another character; I thought it seemed to come very suddenly out of nowhere and I was disappointed that Anne, being such a strong person in other respects, had the view that a woman should admire a man’s strength and prepare to be submissive.

Going back to the theme for this month’s read, this novel was inspired by a round-the-world trip taken by Agatha and her first husband Archie Christie in 1922. You can see the full list of categories for Read Christie 2022 at the bottom of the challenge page on the Agatha Christie website.

The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie

The final monthly theme for the Read Christie 2021 challenge is ‘a story set during bad weather’. I have chosen to read The Sittaford Mystery, a standalone novel first published in 1931 – and what a great choice it was both as a Christmas read and as the book to bring this year’s challenge to an end! The bad weather is there from the very first page when Major Burnaby opens the door of his cottage in the village of Sittaford and looks out:

The scene that met his eyes was typical of the English countryside as depicted on Xmas cards and in old-fashioned melodramas. Everywhere was snow, deep drifts of it – no mere powdering an inch or two thick. Snow had fallen all over England for the last four days, and up here on the fringe of Dartmoor it had attained a depth of several feet.

On this snowy day, with the village cut off from the outside world, Major Burnaby and the other residents of Sittaford decide to entertain themselves by holding a séance. It seems like harmless fun, until a spirit suddenly announces that Burnaby’s friend, Captain Trevelyan, has just been murdered. Despite the heavy snow, Burnaby insists on walking the six miles to Exhampton, where Trevelyan lives – and on arriving there more than two hours later, he discovers his friend’s dead body on the floor of his study.

With several family members named in Trevelyan’s will, there are plenty of suspects, but when it emerges that one of them, the dead man’s nephew James Pearson, was in Exhampton that day, he is arrested on suspicion of murder. Pearson’s fiancée, Emily Trefusis, is determined to clear his name and travels to Sittaford to look for clues. She is assisted by Charles Enderby, a journalist from the Daily Wire, who happened to arrive in Exhampton the day after the murder and is staying on the scene in the hope of getting an exclusive story for his newspaper. But will Emily and Charles manage to solve the mystery before Inspector Narracott, the police detective carrying out the official investigations?

Of all the Christie novels I’ve read for Read Christie this year, The Sittaford Mystery is one that I’ve particularly enjoyed. Much as I like Poirot, Miss Marple and Tommy and Tuppence, I do often find that I prefer her standalone mysteries. In this one, I loved the partnership of Emily Trefusis and Charles Enderby; Emily is a wonderful character – intelligent, courageous and with a knack of knowing how to manipulate people in order to get exactly what she wants (and yet, despite this last character trait she’s very likeable). There’s also a strong supporting cast of characters, including the sharp tongued Miss Percehouse and her nephew Ronnie; Mrs and Miss Willett, the new tenants of Sittaford House who have just arrived from South Africa; and the mysterious Mr Duke, of whom nobody in the village seems to know anything at all.

The plot is up to Christie’s usual high standards, with lots of red herrings and misdirections, so that the reader ends up suspecting almost everybody! I didn’t come close to guessing the culprit – in fact, the murderer was someone I had considered and then dismissed very early in the book – but although there is an important clue concealed from us until near the end, I think it would probably still be possible to work out the solution if you were paying enough attention. My favourite thing about this book, though, was the setting; many of Christie’s mysteries are set in small villages, but the wintry weather gave this one a special atmosphere. I loved it and am glad the Read Christie challenge prompted me to pick it up this December!