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.

Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie

The February prompt for Read Christie 2021 was ‘a story featuring love’; as usual there were several books I could have chosen to fit this theme, but I decided on Sad Cypress, a Poirot title from 1940.

The novel begins with Elinor Carlisle on trial for the murder of Mary Gerrard. All the evidence points to her being guilty – not only was Mary her rival in love, Elinor was also in the right place at the right time to have carried out the murder. Only the village doctor, Peter Lord, believes Elinor didn’t do it and he calls in Hercule Poirot to find proof of her innocence. As Poirot begins to investigate, he discovers that almost everyone connected with the case is telling lies – but Poirot knows that where crimes are concerned, a detective can learn as much from a lie as he can from the truth.

Sad Cypress has not become a favourite Christie novel, but it’s still one that I enjoyed and one that stands out to me as feeling slightly different from most of the other Poirots I’ve read. In fact, Poirot himself doesn’t appear until almost halfway through the book and although he plays his usual vital role in solving the crime, I think the story could have been just as strong without him (apparently this was Christie’s own view as well, when she reflected on the novel after it was published). A large part of the story is written from Elinor’s perspective which gives it an emotional, intimate feel; I particularly liked the sections at the beginning and end of the book which become almost dreamlike as Elinor stands in court ‘as though imprisoned in a thick mist’, waiting to hear the decision of the jury.

As for the mystery itself, I think the plot is perhaps simpler than a lot of Christie’s others, but cleverly constructed and tightly focused. There are really only two or three likely suspects and for once I did correctly guess how the murder had been carried out and therefore who must have been responsible, but I wasn’t completely sure and had to wait for Poirot to provide the evidence. I didn’t manage to solve the mystery entirely, though – there were still lots of things that confused me, including the motive, and the twists towards the end of the book took me by surprise! Finally, in case you’re wondering, the unusual title comes from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “Come away, come away, death, And in sad cypress let me be laid.”

The Read Christie theme for March is ‘a story featuring a society figure’. I’m torn between Lord Edgware Dies and Sparkling Cyanide; if you’ve read either of them, maybe you can help me decide!

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?

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.

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.

Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie

Dumb Witness (also published in the US as Poirot Loses a Client) was May’s selection for the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge I’ve been taking part in this year. I missed last month’s because the chosen book – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – was one I’d read before and wasn’t ready to read again – but this one was new to me and sounded very appealing.

Published in 1937, Dumb Witness is one of several Christie novels which feature her famous detective Hercule Poirot and are narrated by his friend Captain Hastings. The novel opens with the family of old Emily Arundell gathering to celebrate the Easter weekend at her home, Littlegreen House, in the fictional village of Market Basing. Emily’s dog, Bob, is excited because there are more people to play his favourite game with him – bouncing his ball from the top of the stairs to the bottom. When Emily gets up during the night and falls down the stairs, however, it’s poor Bob who gets the blame. He must have left his ball there and his mistress didn’t see it in the dark; what other explanation could there be? And yet…

Surely — surely, she must be mistaken…One often had queer fancies after an event had happened. She tried — earnestly she tried — to recall the slippery roundness of Bob’s ball under her foot…
But she could recall nothing of the kind.
Instead —

Convinced that her fall was not an accident and not Bob’s fault, Emily writes to Hercule Poirot and hints that she would like him to investigate the ‘incident of the dog’s ball’, but by the time he receives the letter it’s too late. Emily Arundell is dead, presumably of natural causes. Studying the letter she sent him, Poirot is sure that it wasn’t a natural death at all so, with Hastings by his side, he sets off for Littlegreen House to prove that Miss Arundell has been murdered.

There is certainly no shortage of suspects. Her nieces and nephew and their partners are all in need of money for various reasons and could all have had an opportunity to carry out the murder, while the person who does actually benefit financially from her death – her companion, Miss Lawson – also has to be considered. Then there are the other servants at Littlegreen House, as well as two spiritualist women who claim to have seen a halo of light around Emily Arundell’s head. With her usual skill, Christie directs our suspicions first at one character, then at another, and although I kept thinking I had identified the culprit, I didn’t manage to guess the correct solution until just before it was revealed. However, I did still pick up on one or two important clues before Poirot did, so I don’t need to feel too ashamed!

I really enjoyed this particular Poirot novel; I usually do tend to enjoy the ones narrated by Hastings and I wish there had been a few more of them. The real star of this book, though, has to be Bob the dog! Although he is presumably the ‘dumb witness’ of the title, Christie gives him a personality of his own – and even some dialogue, of a sort. It’s little touches like this that made this book so entertaining. Now I’m wondering what the June choice for the challenge will be.

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

When I read about the Read Christie 2019 Challenge hosted at www.agathachristie.com – the idea being to tick off twelve books from twelve different categories over the course of the year – I was immediately tempted to join in. I didn’t want to think of it as a challenge as such, or make a definite commitment, but I thought I could use the monthly prompts to get through some of the many Christies I still haven’t read. This month’s category is “a recent TV adaptation” and the suggested book is The ABC Murders. I had started to watch the new BBC adaptation of The ABC Murders which was shown at Christmas, but struggled to get into it, so I thought I would try the book instead. And what a great book it is!

The murder of Alice Ascher in her small tobacconist shop in the town of Andover seems as though it should be an easy one to solve. There is an obvious culprit – the woman’s drunken husband – and he would certainly have been the prime suspect, if not for a mysterious coincidence which happened just days before the murder. Hercule Poirot had received a typewritten letter signed simply A.B.C. and warning of a crime to be committed in Andover on that particular date – and beside the body of the dead woman was a copy of the ABC Railway Guide.

But this will not be the only murder to take place:

‘I admit,’ I said, ‘that a second murder in a book often cheers things up. If the murder happens in the first chapter, and you have to follow up everybody’s alibi until the last page but one – well, it does get a bit tedious.’

When a similar letter arrives soon afterwards giving advance warning of a second murder which will happen in Bexhill, it doesn’t come as a surprise to Poirot when the second victim has a name beginning with B and when another ABC Guide is found next to the body. Convinced now that the killer is following an alphabetical pattern, Poirot must uncover his or her identity before they get all the way to Z.

This is one of several Poirot novels narrated by Captain Hastings (although there are a few chapters written from the perspective of other characters). I always seem to enjoy the ones with Hastings, partly because he, like the reader, is often in the dark and needs Poirot to explain things to him, but also because I think Poirot having a friend to discuss things with gives these books a different dynamic to the ones where he is working entirely on his own amongst strangers. Sometimes Hastings can make an observation or suggestion which proves to be useful later on, as he does once or twice in this book. Inspector Crome is investigating too, and a ‘legion’ of the victims’ families and friends is also formed to see whether they can shed any light on the situation.

What makes this book so intriguing is that each of the murders which takes place seems unrelated to the others, apart from the ABC theme and the letters sent to Poirot. They each have a separate set of suspects, all with their own motives, but what Poirot needs to do is find something which links them all to one man or woman – the mysterious A.B.C. I found this a particularly clever Christie novel and didn’t come close to solving it. I allowed myself to be sent in completely the wrong direction by the red herrings and took everything at face value; in fact, for a long time I thought I was reading a different sort of mystery entirely.

I loved this one and I think I did the right thing in reading it before trying to watch the adaptation again. I’m planning to read another Christie novel in February, although I don’t know what it will be yet – I’m waiting to see what the chosen category will be for the next stage of the challenge.