Reviews & Rants - Blogging about books, authors, and generally
I had to interrupt our Why Didn't They Ask Evans? buddy read because WhiskeyintheJarRomance reminded me to do something very important.
My kitchen may now look like a battlefield, but anything lemon drizzle is worth it.
Now back to my very last Christie.
‘The thing is – what to do next,’ she said. ‘It seems to me we’ve got three angles of attack.’
‘Go on, Sherlock.’
‘The first is you. They’ve made one attempt on your life. They’ll probably try again. This time we might get what they call “a line” on them. Using you as a decoy, I mean.’
‘No thank you, Frankie,’ said Bobby with feeling. ‘I’ve been very lucky this time, but I mightn’t be so lucky again if they changed the attack to a blunt instrument. I was thinking of taking a great deal of care of myself in the future. The decoy idea can be washed out.’
‘I was afraid you’d say that,’ said Frankie with a sigh. ‘Young men are sadly degenerate nowadays. Father says so. They don’t enjoy being uncomfortable and doing dangerous and unpleasant things any longer. It’s a pity.’
Ha! I love Frankie.
Definitely an early Christie. The generational conflict is still portrayed with a lot of sympathy and empathy to both parties:
The Vicar sighed.
‘Oh, my dear Bobby,’ he said. ‘Will nothing shake your deplorable callousness? It grieves me more than I can say. Here you have been brought face to face with death – with sudden death. And you can joke about it! It leaves you unmoved. Everything – everything, however solemn, however sacred, is merely a joke to your generation.’
Bobby shuffled his feet.
If his father couldn’t see that, of course, you joked about a thing because you had felt badly about it – well, he couldn’t see it! It wasn’t the sort of thing you could explain. With death and tragedy about you had to keep a stiff upper lip.
But what could you expect? Nobody over fifty understood anything at all. They had the most extraordinary ideas.
‘I expect it was the War,’ thought Bobby loyally. ‘It upset them and they never got straight again.’
He felt ashamed of his father and sorry for him.
‘Sorry, Dad,’ he said with a clear-eyed realization that explanation was impossible.
The Vicar felt sorry for his son – he looked abashed – but he also felt ashamed of him. The boy had no conception of the seriousness of life. Even his apology was cheery and impenitent.
They moved towards the Vicarage, each making enormous efforts to find excuses for the other.
The Vicar thought: ‘I wonder when Bobby will find something to do … ?’
Bobby thought: ‘Wonder how much longer I can stick it down here … ?’
Yet they were both extremely fond of each other.
I am really digging Mukherjee's writing - and I love his use of historical background for the setting in 1919 Calcutta:
‘Why you want to go Tangra now, sahib?’ he asked as he pulled.
‘I want to go to Chinatown.’
There was only one reason for a European to go to Chinatown in the dead of night. But it would be out of place for a native to say so out loud.
‘Sahib,’ he said, ‘I can take you to little Chinatown. Is in Tiretta Bazaar, near Coolootolah. Everything you find in Chinatown you will find also in Tiretta Bazaar. Chinese food… Chinese medicine…’
The man was no fool.
‘All right,’ I said, ‘take me there.’
I smiled grimly at the thought of what Mrs Tebbit would say if she knew where her prize lodger was off to at this hour. Still, the way I saw it, she was partly responsible. If she hadn’t given me the key to the front door, I’d still have been in bed. That was a lie.
The cravings were too strong. If she hadn’t given me the key, I’d have found some other means of escape, probably involving windows, bedsheets and drainpipes. One of the practical benefits of attending an English boarding school is that one receives a first-class education in the surreptitious access and egress from almost any premises.
Anyway, Mrs Tebbit’s hypothetical displeasure was irrelevant. What I was doing wasn’t illegal. Very few things are strictly illegal for an Englishman in India. Visiting an opium den certainly isn’t. Opium’s only really illegal for Burmese workers. Even registered Indians can get hold of it. And as for the Chinese, well we could hardly make it illegal for them, seeing as we’d fought two wars against their emperors for the right to peddle the damn stuff in their country. And peddle it we did. So much so that we managed to make addicts out of a quarter of the male population. If you thought about it, that probably made Queen Victoria the greatest drug peddler in history.
Festival is off to a great start.
Just had a fun evening listening to Abir Mukherjee talking about his books, and am actually really intrigued by them now.
And of course I'm really looking forward to the other events I'm attending this weekend, too! (I'm still trying to get a couple of friends to do the Mystery themed escape room with me...)
The Why Didn't They Ask Evans buddy read is still on tomorrow, tho!
This contains spoilers.
Here's a first: a Klaus Mann novel I was looking forward to but that I ended up wanting to finish very quickly because I wanted the book to end and wanted to move on to something else.
This was Mann's first book after having to emigrate from Germany. The story features a young woman who is forced to flee from the Nazis because she's a communist and has been involved in helping the resistance.
She manages, by way of false passports and underground travel, to go to Finland where she can stay with a friend's family.
What follows is basically Mann's argumentation for putting one's political ideals over caring for the people around one, and this is where the book falls down for me.
While the MC manages to get out, her parents are left behind in Berlin, now unable to work because of their connection with an "enemy of state", and yet our MC doesn't seem to care. Maybe she's trying to suppress her feelings in that regard to keep sane and to find the strength to not despair, but that is not how it struck me in the book.
When in Finland, she observes that people there too are, to some extent, sympathising with the Nazis because they believe to have a common foe in the Russians, and yet, instead of trying to fight this, our MC only thinks about her friends and comrades who have managed to settle in Paris and who are continuing to run operations from there.
It's almost like our MC is on the run from her own involvement by looking to be involved at another place rather than dealing with the people and day-to-day situations that occur around her.
Maybe this is an expression of our MC's feeling of helplessness or depression at the time, but given the political polemics that are thrown in throughout the book, I didn't get the impression that despair or paralysis to act were something that Mann wanted to communicate. Given that at the end of the book, our MC decides to, yet, again leave the people she loves (and who really could do with her help) to join "the cause" in Paris, paralysis does not seem to be her issue as much as facing up to the task of realising the needs of the people around her.
Now, maybe it is because I disagree with this call to arms for an idea, that is so impersonal that it completely ignores the actual people it is meant to serve, or maybe it is that I dislike having politics - any politics - pushed at me, but the underlying motivations for what our MC does or does not do in this novel just made no sense to me.
Of course, it may also be that Mann himself didn't find any credible motivations in the acts of the characters, or of many of the people around him, when he wrote the book, but as much as I could sympathise with him writing the book in the circumstances that he did, it just did not make for compelling reading. Especially not, when we know he could write much better books.
‘A mirror shows the truth, but everyone stands in a different place for looking into the mirror.’
I have always thought of The Mystery of the Blue Train as a strange story - not a first rate mystery, not a complete mess, but most definitely not a memorable Christie classic.
As Christie herself tells us in her autobiography, she was not fond of this story either - partly because she didn't feel like she managed to flesh out the characters so they would come alive on the page, and partly because she wrote this story under the pressures of having to earn a paycheck after the separation from her first husband.
I felt more strongly than ever that everything I was saying was idiotic! (Most of it was, too.) I faltered, stammered, hesitated, and repeated myself. Really, how that wretched book ever came to be written, I don’t know! To begin with, I had no joy in writing, no elan. I had worked out the plot–a conventional plot, partly adapted from one of my other stories. I knew, as one might say, where I was going, but I could not see the scene in my mind’s eye, and the people would not come alive. I was driven desperately on by the desire, indeed the necessity, to write another book and make some money. That was the moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you are writing, and aren’t writing particularly well. I have always hated The Mystery of the Blue Train, but I got it written, and sent off to the publishers. It sold just as well as my last book had done. So I had to content myself with that–though I cannot say I have ever been proud of it.
Agatha Christie - An Autobiography (pp. 357-358). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.
And indeed, for me, too, there is little that stood out in the characters when I first read the story, and the crime and it's motive are, while horrible, fairly uninteresting.
As a result, I have always looked at this story as a first draft of what would become one of my favourite Christie classics - Murder on the Orient Express.
On this most recent re-read, however, details that were not strictly connected with the whodunnit revealed themselves that gave the story another layer, that connected this odd little story to the rest, and the best, of the Christie universe.
If you look closely, you can find that one of the characters, Katherine Grey, does not only have the spark of the brightest of Christie's young things but she's also come from that most intriguing of little villages - that cradle of human psychology in the Christie universe - St Mary Mead, home of a certain fierce and judgmental little old lady whom I can't stand but who, one has to admit, has a certain flair for snooping out crime.
This is as close as we get to Marple and Poirot ever meeting in the same book. They don't (and Christie herself was not in favour of them meeting), but The Mystery of the Blue Train seems like one of the key steps in Christie's development of the Marple series, even if this was perhaps not what the author intended.
The full force of Marple would hit the reading public two years later in Murder at the Vicarage, but there are some hints at village life that seem to have already been on Christie's mind when penning Blue Train. For the Christie enthusiast - or Agathyte as Moonlight Reader has christened us fans - this is a delicious little detail that makes the book worth reading if it lacks much of the intelligent and complex plotting of a great Christie novel.
Previous Reading Updates:
‘I see…Yes, I see now a lot of things.’
‘It’s about time,’ said Mrs Oliver.
‘I said it was about time,’ said Mrs Oliver. ‘That you did see things, I mean. Up to now you don’t seem to have done anything.’ Her voice held reproach.
‘One cannot arrive at things all in a moment,’ said Poirot, defending himself. ‘The police,’ he added, ‘have been completely baffled.’
‘Oh, the police,’ said Mrs Oliver. ‘Now if a woman were the head of Scotland Yard…’
Recognizing this well-known phrase, Poirot hastened to interrupt.
One of Ariadne's best lines from Cards on the Table and I love that she maintains her convictions in this one.
Looking at the ceiling, the inspector spoke.
‘Ah,’ said Poirot, ‘the conflicting statements! Yes, one always has them.’
Well, damn. My wish for murder victim hasn't materialised and Alec Legge is still around somewhere in this story.
However, I have enjoyed Poirot's stroll through the fete:
Poirot emerged from the tent and was immediately challenged by a determined woman and made to pay sixpence and guess the weight of a cake.
A hoop-la stall presided over by a fat motherly woman urged him to try his luck and, much to his discomfiture, he immediately won a large Kewpie doll. Walking sheepishly along with this he encountered Michael Weyman who was standing gloomily on the outskirts near the top of a path that led down to the quay.
Well, this has turned sinister quite quickly.
‘Well, well…’ Alec Legge seemed amused. ‘Most unexpected coming from you. Do you know what I should like to see done in this country?’
‘Something, no doubt, forceful and unpleasant,’ said Poirot, smiling.
Alec Legge remained serious. ‘I should like to see every feeble-minded person put out – right out! Don’t let them breed. If, for one generation, only the intelligent were allowed to breed, think what the result would be.’
‘A very large increase of patients in the psychiatric wards, perhaps,’ said Poirot dryly. ‘One needs roots as well as flowers on a plant, Mr Legge. However large and beautiful the flowers, if the earthy roots are destroyed there will be no more flowers.’
Mr Legge has just won himself the top spot on my list of potential victims.
‘How do you do, M. Poirot,’ she said. ‘I do hope you didn’t have too crowded a journey? The trains are sometimes too terrible this time of year. Let me give you some tea. Milk? Sugar?’
‘Very little milk, mademoiselle, and four lumps of sugar.’ He added, as Miss Brewis dealt with his request, ‘I see that you are all in a great state of activity.’
Quelle horreur!!! Poirot is drinking tea?!?!?
Oh, yes, this will be a fun one!
‘That was Mrs Oliver,’ he said. ‘Ariadne Oliver, the detective novelist. You may have read…’
But he stopped, remembering that Miss Lemon only read improving books and regarded such frivolities as fictional crime with contempt.
‘She wants me to go down to Devonshire today, at once, in’ – he glanced at the clock – ‘thirty-five minutes.’
Miss Lemon raised disapproving eyebrows. ‘That will be running it rather fine,’ she said. ‘For what reason?’
‘You may well ask! She did not tell me.’
‘How very peculiar. Why not?’
‘Because,’ said Hercule Poirot thoughtfully, ‘she was afraid of being overheard. Yes, she made that quite clear.’
‘Well, really,’ said Miss Lemon, bristling in her employer’s defence.
‘The things people expect! Fancy thinking that you’d go rushing off on some wild goose chase like that! An important man like you! I have always noticed that these artists and writers are very unbalanced – no sense of proportion. Shall I telephone through a telegram: Regret unable leave London?’
Ariadne Oliver and Miss Lemon in the same book! Delightful!
Surely Christie must have had fun with the concept of suspending Poirot between the two formidable ladies of such opposite qualities.
Poirot was directed to a winding path that led along the wood with glimpses of the river below. The path descended gradually until it came out at last on an open space, round in shape, with a low battlemented parapet. On the parapet Mrs Oliver was sitting.
She rose to meet him and several apples fell from her lap and rolled in all directions. Apples seemed to be an inescapable motif of meeting Mrs Oliver.
‘I can’t think why I always drop things,’ said Mrs Oliver somewhat indistinctly, since her mouth was full of apple. ‘How are you, M. Poirot?’
‘Tre`s bien, che`re Madame,’ replied Poirot politely. ‘And you?’
Mrs Oliver was looking somewhat different from when Poirot had last seen her, and the reason lay, as she had already hinted over the telephone, in the fact that she had once more experimented with her coiffure. The last time Poirot had seen her, she had been adopting a windswept effect. Today, her hair, richly blued, was piled upward in a multiplicity of rather artificial little curls in a pseudo Marquise style. The Marquise effect ended at her neck; the rest of her could have been definitely labelled ‘country practical,’ consisting of a violent yolk-of-egg rough tweed coat and skirt and a rather bilious-looking mustard-coloured jumper.