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[838] The Mystery of the Blue Train – Agatha Christie

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“A mirror shows the truth, but everyone stands in a different place for looking into the mirror.” (Ch.32, 291)

On the luxurious Blue Train Ruth Kettering, daughter of American billionaire Rufus Van Aldin, travels to Nice on her annual winter getaway with some precious rubies in her possession. Without her father’s knowing, she has planned a secret rendezvous with an old flame, of whom her father despises, in the French Riviera.

In another compartment sits Katherine Grey, who has come to wealth after she inherits a fortune from the old lady she has taken care the past ten years. Also on board is Dereek Kettering, who has no idea that his wife is on the train, and he is with his mistress, the actress Mirelle. The next morning, no sooner has Grey got off the train than she is called as a witness to Ruth Kettering’s murder. She has struck a brief conversation with Ruth Kettering who confided in her her troubles. What is more, Katherine Grey recognizes Dereek as the man she saw going into Ruth’s compartment on the night of her murder.

The story, though lesser known, is well-crafted, and the characterization nuanced. At stake is the precious jewelry that would benefit Dereek, but Hercule Poirot from instinct dismisses the obvious evidence that implicates the husband. There are things that do not add up: a lighter with the engraved ‘K’, the victim’s maid left the train in Paris and didn’t accompany her mistress, and the fact that Ruth’s face was disfigured. It’s the layering of issues and their underlying problems that are most impressive about the plot. Christie has deftly led reader astray from the original assessments, and there is more to the story than what appears.

Mystery aside this book is about women who are coming to terms of their own. Ruth Kettering is locked in an unhappy marriage; Katherine Grey is a woman who keeps her own counsel. They meet on the train just hours before Ruth was murdered. This is not a fast-paced mystery, but Christie has a way of bringing together characters, who at first seem so far apart from one another in distance and temperament.

317 pp. Black Dog & Leventhal. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[800] N or M? – Agatha Christie

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“It was so still, so unblinking in its regard, that it seemed to Tuppence as though it was not human. Staring, staring up at the windows of Sans Souci. It was devoid of expression, and yet there was—yes, undoubtedly there was, menace about it.” (Ch.9, 92)

N or M? is all about atmosphere, not so much a whodunit as an espionage mystery set during the Second World War. Tommy and his wife Tuppence follow a dead British agent’s last words to seaside guest house Sans Souci for male N and female M, Hitler’s most trusted to lead Fifth Column. They assume other names to check in to the hotel and maintain secrecy and consistency of their adopted identities. Their antics are hilarious; but they on occasions forget to lie and thus risk blowing their covers.

Other than a German refugee von Deinem, Tommy and Tuppence are looking at a group of ordinary everyday people. Could the German spies be part-Spanish landlady Mrs. Perenna, sulky daughter Sheila, bulky Mrs. O’Rourke, bluff Major Bletchley, elderly Miss Minton, invalid Mr. Cayley or his attentive wife Elizabeth? Surely not Mrs. Sprot with lisping toddler Betty?

A hefty amount of pages devote to Tommy and Tuppence’s secret probing and meeting away from the house. There’s a mysterious woman seen around town. There’s room being searched. The toddler is kidnapped. Kidnapper is killed. The haven of peace and quiet does bode menace, something indescribable, a queer formless dread of something is going to be. Despite the plenty twists and turns, the surprised ending is rushed and weak.

191 pp. Dell Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[799] 13 At Dinner – Agatha Christie

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“Hers was not a face to command instant attention or recognition. It was one of those mobile, sensitive faces that pre-eminently lend themselves to the act of mimicry.” (9)

A well-known, beautiful actress Jane Wilkinson approaches Hercule Poirot with an unusual request: to convince her husband, Lord Edgware, to divorce her. The actress shamelessly makes no secret about how her husband is in the way of her romantic dreams. She is in love with a Duke to whom she plans to marry. The next day Lord Edgware tells Poirot that he has already agreed to the divorce and had mailed a letter to inform Jane of his agreement. That very evening Lord Edgware is murdered. The police regards Jane the prime suspect based on evidence of two witnesses, Lord Edgware’s butler and secretary, who corroborate seeing her in the house on the night of the murder.

The best of the book is the investigation by Detective Japp as instructed by Hercule Poirot. Solving the mystery means looking at many different options. A plethora of seemingly unrelated evidence baffles them. Jane Wilkinson has the perfect alibi as corroborated by thirteen dinner guests in the party she attended. How could she be in two places at one time? Before the detective can pursue the many questions, another woman is found dead, a reputable American actress-impersonator Carlotta Adams.

Christie gives us a lot of clues—almost too many clues that the book risks of going too long with no resolution and no real breaks in the case. But the solution is obvious except one has to make sense of all the puzzle pieces. Characterization is supple and well done in this book, shining light on the period details (1930s) and women’s roles in society. Majority of the characters are women, and they all have to fend for themselves and improve their social status by marrying above them or having a life made on their own.

213 pp. Dell Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[795] The Clocks – Agatha Christie

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The Clocks begins with a dramatic scene on 19 Wilbraham Crescent, home of a blind school teacher Miss Millicent Pebmarsh. On her floor lies a dead man, stabbed fatally—a respectable-looking elderly man. Nobody knows who he is (or so they say). As the mystery deepens, it seems whoever is behind the murder does not want the man identified. Apparently earlier in the day, a secretarial agency is rung up, a Miss Millicent Pebmarsh asks for a stenographer to be sent to the aforementioned address at 3pm. It’s particularly asked that a Miss Sheila Webb should be sent.

Miss Sheila Webb arrives for the appointment. To her utter shock, she discovers the corpse in the sitting room. She runs outside the house into the arms of a young man Colin Lamb, who delivers most of the narrative of the story. Miss Millicent Pebmarsh denies making the call to the secretary agency; it seems someone has deliberately arranged for the typist to be there at the Pebmarsh house. The profusion of clocks, four in all, that don’t belong to the blind woman, adds to the mystery.

As the gardens of several houses verge on to that of the crime scene, investigator interview all the neighbors, an array of interesting people who are not what they appear to be or that they reveal too much without knowing. Naturally they are all up on guard. But it’s unnatural that nobody has seen anything. There’s a bit of twist and turn, and the usual red herring. But The Clocks is a traditional whodunit in the sense that the simple truth is concealed with a careful and cunning use of words. An ordinary has been killed. Why? Here is someone, an ordinary, pleasant-looking man whose removal is necessary to someone. This is when Hercule Poirot’s bluff is called. He doesn’t appear on the crime scene but only lends his expertise to Lamb. He calls for meticulous examination of every suspect’s background, and encourages Colin Lamb to converse with them. To the keen reader, it is what people let slip that becomes the key to solving the crime.

246 pp. Pocket Books USA. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[709] The A.B.C. Murders – Agatha Christie

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” It is not the facts I reflect upon—but the mind of the murderer. . . I begin to see—not what you would like to see—the outlines of a face and form but the outlines of a mind. A mind that moves and works in a certain definite directions. “(Ch.17, p.117)

The A.B.C. Murders is considered one of Christie’s finest works, not so much a mystery than a detective fiction. Think of it as a brilliant perception of the murderer’s mind on the part of Hercule Poirot. The book features Captain Arthur Hastings as the narrator who goes into details the personal relationships that arise as a consequence of the strange series of crimes.

The chase begins when Poirot receives a typewritten letter, on fine stationery he emphasizes, from a Mr. ABC informing him about the murder he is going to commit—given the exact date and place of the crime. While Poirot’s sixth sense (and experience) tells him to take this man seriously, the police dismisses the matter as a hoax. But, Poirot is proved right when an old lady shopkepper named Alice Ascher is found murdered in Andover. Mr. ABC proceeds, unlike a serial killer who randomly removes anyone in his way, in a neat alphabetical order as if he wants to assert his personality. The second letter is followed by the murder of a young waitress named Elizabeth Bernard in Bexhill-on-Sea—the B murder as promised on the agenda.

ABC is no fool, even if he is a madman. (Ch.21, p.153)

Now that a serial killer is on the loose, working his way through the alphabet, the whole country is in panic. The third letter however goes astray and reaches Poirot only on the morning of the day of the murder. Poirot and the police reach the house of Sir Carmichael Clarke in Churston only to find him murdered in the woods. All three victims are distinctly different. The ABC has left only one apparent clue with the dead body of every victim—-ABC railway timetable guides.

In my opinion the strength of his obsession is such that he must attempt to carry out his promise! Not to do so would be admit failure, and that his insane egoism would never allow. (Ch.23, p.168)

While Poirot interviews the families of victims, he observes that, in every case, there is at least one person who has motve to be the murderer. Parallel to this investigation is a Mr. Alexander Bonaparte Cust, an old, dim-witted, ordinary salesman of stockings. Cust is a war veteran who has sustained head injury and epilepsy. He is deemed the lunatic killer when it’s been revealed that he was present in all the towns where the crimes took place. But he didn’t remember any details.

The A.B.C. Murders showcases Hercule Poirot’s finesse in detective skills. Instead of taking the face value of superficial facts, Poirot digs deeper into the murderer’s mind, knowing the series of crimes and the psychology do not match up. Christie obviously is not afraid of adopting avant-garde approaches to the detective genre. She constantly befuddles reader and even Poirot himself. Instead of the usual “whodunit” approach, the psychology of the crime has been given more prominence. The whole novel has me thinking whether the crimes are indeed the doing of a mad man, or the other way? What is so particularly brilliant about this book is that while red herrings abound, the reader is left wondering at the end how one can have missed the obvious solution.

252 pp. William Morrow. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Hercule Poirot

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The Guardian UK sifted out the top 10 Agatha Christie novels back in 2009, in chronological order:

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) H
Peril at End House (1932) H
Murder on the Orient Express (1934) H
The ABC Murders (1935) H
And Then There Were None (1939)
Five Little Pigs (1943) H
Crooked House (1949)
A Murder is Announced (1950) M
Endless Night (1967)
Curtain: Poirot’s Last case (1975) H

Six of these are Hercule Poirot mysteries. Christie brought Hercule Poirot to life in 1916, when she was inspired to write her first crime novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. She was unable to account for the creation of this extraordinary little being, with his fanatical love of order, his delicious conceit, his sexless cosmopolitan charm. In her autobiography she referred, almost cursorily, to how Poirot was inspired by the wartime Belgian refugees who had lived in her home town of Torquay; but this was no explanation of the mystery of creativity, the instinct that had guided her so surely.

Poirot’s intelligence and quirkiness are what appeal to me.He is incomparably fussy about his appearance; and he is extremely confident and competent in his deductions. On occasions he has warned someone ahead of time not to follow through a plan or scheme or relationship. Although one might have seen all that he has seen up to that moment, what is obvious to him becomes merely foreshadowing for the reader.

[663] And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie

” Whoever it was who enticed us here, that person knows or has taken the trouble to find out a good deal about us all. ” (Ch.4, p.57)

Second or third time around And Then There Were None still intrigues me and creeps me. The book has long achieved a cult status and makes the canonical standing in the mystery genre. The title has already given away what will happen so it is not the outcome that concerns the reader. It’s how and why. All invited by someone known as U.N. Owen, ten people—a doctor, a governess, a soldier of fortune, a carefree playboy, an ex-cop, a judge, a retired general and a married couple who are to be servants—all gather in a modern house well stocked with provisions and amenities on an island a mile off the Devon coast.

It’s all mad! The whole thing of going by the rhyme is mad! . . . Don’t you see? We’re the Zoo . . . last night, we were hardly human any more. We’re the Zoo . . . (Ch.15, p.226)

All the guests share a dubiously wicked past that they are not prepared to reveal. They were involved in undertakings that were beyond the reach of the law. As suggested by the title, one by one they fall prey , in a manner paralleling, inexorably and sometimes grotesquely, the nursery rhyme mounted on the wall of each guest room. The set of ten china figurines on the dining table also keeps tally of the number of remaining guests as fatal cruelty descends.

It’s those little figures, sir. In the middle of the table. The little china figures. Ten of them, there were, I’ll swear to that, ten of them. (Ch.6, p.95)

And Then There Were None is a psychological study. Panic ensues when the diminishing group realizes that one of their own number is the killer. Formality and politeness are forgotten. No one is exonerated from guilt as the perpetrator could be among the group, only the dead is above suspicion. The mystery is, if all are dead, who is the killer? Christie’s skill at plotting was evident from the first. The book also explores human conscience. If these people are undeniably guilty, to what extent would they resort to the fate as it’s dictated by the nursery rhyme. Christie really captures that psyche so evidently in the dialogue that becomes more and more sparse and less coherent. Would the consciousness of one’s guilt, the state of nervous tension consequent on having just murdered someone, be sufficient, together with the hypnotic suggestion of the surroundings, to cause the last guest to take his/her own life?

Christie is at her most ingenious and most surprising in this book. Her plot may be highly artificial, but it is neat, brilliantly cunning, soundly constructed, and free from any of those red-herring false trails which sometimes disfigure her work.

275 pp. St. Martin. Mass Paperback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]