So, it’s the last day of September and I still haven’t finished Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton. Well, the day, if not young, isn’t quite dead and I can squeeze in a couple of reading hours yet. This month started out being a “re-read Agatha Christie” month, but turned into a semi-mystery month. I’ve read a mystery thriller by Henry James and am currently reading detective fiction Father Brown besides the 7 Agatha Christies I’ve re-read. Overall, this is my most productive reading month in a long time!

What I’ve been reading:

The Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
The Aspern Papers by Henry James
The Unknown Ajax by Georgette Heyer

Agatha Christie re-reads this month:

The Pale Horse
The Sittaford Mystery
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Death Comes as the End
The Mirror Crack’d
Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?
Poirot’s Early Cases

and hopefully, Father Brown by the end of the day. See y’all next month!

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The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Rating: ****

Agatha Christie’s first published novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles led to her continuing success through famous detective Hercule Poirot and his side-kick Arthur Hastings. Lieutenant Hastings, out on sick leave from the army during World War I, is invited by friend John Cavendish to spend his time at Styles Court. Styles Court is owned by John’s step-mother, formerly Emily Cavendish who has recently married a young and mysterious Alfred Inglethorp. John and his brother Lawrence are sure that the man is after their step-mother’s money but have no way of proving it. The old lady is absolutely besotted creating a lot of tension.

In this out of the world place, Arthur unexpectedly meets an old friend Hercule Poirot. Emily Inglethorp, always charitable and generous, has helped Poirot and some of his countrymen to settle in England. It is because he is indebted to her that the renowned Belgian ex-detective takes on a new case – that of Emily Inglethorp’s murder; For one day, Emily is found suffering from seizures in her bed; her subsequent death is put down to strychnine poisoning.

The murder increases the tension pitching the whole family into a nightmare. The prime suspect is Alfred Inglethorp, but Poirot does everything he can to stop his arrest – it is crucial to the solution that Alfred is declared innocent and John tried for the murder. The family desperately awaits the outcome.

I am a huge Hercule Poirot fan. I love his method, his idiosyncrasies (which in this case actually help with a key piece of evidence), and his ‘grey cells’. In re-reading the novel I was sure I would find some loophole or some fact that didn’t go with the solution to the murder, but I found no such thing. Each and every piece of the puzzle was found by Hercule Poirot and properly accounted for. I looked at everything in a different light and saw how Poirot’s logic, which led him to the murderer, was actually really sound. I wonder how I never got it the first time round!

It was really the characters rather than the plot that made this novel so great. I loved the intricate relationship portrayals and how we are shown Hastings’ chivalry and innocence right from the beginning. Among the notable characters in the novel was John Cavendish’s wife Mary – a unique character and one I have not found in any other Agatha Christie novel. Poirot, always out to nail the murderer, nevertheless has a human side that shows itself in the little things he does for the innocent.

The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side

Rating: **

St. Mary Mead has changed considerably over the years. A new area called ‘The Development’ by the old inhabitants of the village has been created. But human nature being what it always is….

The excitement is great when American actress Marina Gregg comes to live in Dolly Bantry’s old home, Gossington Hall. Miss Marple, older and dependent on a nurse, still has a brain as keen as ever. Sitting at her window, her eyes see more than people present at the fete at Gossington Hall. Heather Badcock, a kind and efficient woman, is murdered at the crowded party under the eyes of many witnesses. The bold and audacious murderer seemingly got away with the crime – but did he? Was Heather Badcock the real target? or was the famous movie star Marina Gregg the intended victim? Chief Inspector Craddock seems to think so along with Miss Marple, and working together they try and narrow down the list of suspects.

The actress herself will say nothing. They have only one clue to go on; Mrs. Bantry, a witness at the party, reports of a look of doom on Marina Gregg’s face whilst talking to Heather Badcock. What had caused this look? Had she seen someone or something terrible? The poem by Tennyson The Lady of Shalott comes to mind,

Out flew the web and floated wide-
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.

Whether she tells Scotland Yard or not, Marina Gregg obviously has an enemy. Two more deaths occur. Miss Marple is sure that the clue to the murderer lies in that one look. Vainly she questions and tries to deduce who she could have seen at that moment – only to make a shocking discovery.

Some thoughts
I’m not a huge Miss Marple fan which is not a famous thing to be, I know. Most readers of Agatha Christie love her and while I do admire her method of knowing ‘types’ of people, I can never really like her. Horrible, I know, but that’s just the way it is. I usually like the plots of the novels she’s in, but in this story, the plot only initially seemed water tight. Not every imaginable person was tacked with a motive to the murder – but soon things began to crop up and everyone seemed to have a hidden agenda. It may be the most unlikely person – but it shouldn’t be practically anybody! A critic Anthony Cox reviewed it thus,

“she has of course thought up one more brilliant little peg on which to hang her plot, but the chief interest to me of The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side was the shrewd exposition of what makes a female film star tick the way she does tick. And though one could accept a single coincidence concerning that married couple, the second and quite wildly improbable one tends to destroy faith in the story – still more so since it leads nowhere at all.”

The Aspern Papers

It’s taken me days to write a review on this book – and not because I’ve been busy. I just can’t figure out what to say about it! ……………….. If I MUST, all I can say is that the book strangely led nowhere for me.

In The Aspern Papers Henry James shows the common practice of publishers to invade the private lives of public figures, how the family members or intimate acquaintances react to this invasion and the awkward situation created when a publisher schemes and lies for what he wants.

The narrator of the novella, an unnamed publisher, wants “The Aspern Papers”; papers he is sure that Juliana Bordereau, former lover of the famous poet Jeffrey Aspern, must have. He goes prepared to do whatever he must to get those papers and, under false pretences, obtains admission to the house she lives in with her niece Tina. Eventually, he is caught in an awkward position and must decide whether he will be absolutely unscrupulous or if he still has some standards of his own.

This is one of those few times that I loved the development of the story – it had me reading till the last page. The obsession for those unseen papers increases as the story progresses and the reader, along with the publisher, would do anything to just know what they contained. The interaction in the book is namely between the publisher and Tina Bordereau. Having revealed the truth to the niece, he hopes for some help from her. The ending was a shock to say the least. I, like the publisher, was unbelieving. I had invested so much in finding out what the papers were and if he would get them that I felt I had lost something myself. This is why The Aspern Papers felt like it went nowhere – because as far as the poor publisher was concerned, nowhere is where he ended.

The Unknown Ajax

OK, so I went and bought another Heyer regency romance. They’re addictive. And with The Unknown Ajax, I finally hit upon one of Heyer’s best. 

The characters:
Lord Darracott: The head of the household. An eccentric and miserly individual. Father of four sons, three of which are deceased. He controls the whole family by withholding his money.

Hugh Darracott: Son of Lord Darracott’s second son, he has never met the family. They expect him to be of low class with horrible manners due to his father’s marriage to a ‘weaver’s daughter‘. With the death of Lord Darracott’s eldest son and grandson, he is now the heir to the title and estate.

Matthew Darracott: Lord Darracott’s only surviving son. After his brother’s death he believes he is the heir. He comes to Darracott Place when he learns otherwise. With him come his two sons, Vincent and Claud.

Vincent Darracott: Matthew’s elder son, he and his grandfather seem to be one of a kind. Selfish and a lavish spender, his lazy, no-care attitude suffers a check in front of his grandfather – from whom he is always borrowing money. He hates Hugh for stealing away the title from his father which would have then passed to him.

Claud Darracott: His dream is to be the Pink of the Ton i.e. the best dandy in town. He eagerly takes big, clumsy, slow-witted Hugh under his wing to mould him into a gentleman.

Richmond Darracott: The son of Lord Darracott’s youngest son, he is the Lord’s favorite grandchild; He sees in him a spirit of his own and gives him his every desire – as he sees it. But Richmond has his own way of getting what he wants out of life, and as is usual in Georgette Heyer’s books, the brother of the heroine provides a lot of the drama – this is no different. He is brother to;

Anthea Darracott: The Lord has hit upon a great plan – to marry Hugh to his cousin Anthea. That way, the title and estate will stay in the family and Hugh can be controlled. Anthea is the only one of the grandchildren who is not afraid to stand up to her grandfather. She makes it clear to Hugh that she has no intention of marrying him – apparently, neither does he – which results in the two becoming fast friends. It isn’t long before Anthea begins to suspect that the dim witted behaviour is put on by Hugh.

Mrs. Darracott: Mother of Anthea and Richmond, she adores her children and stands in great trepidation of her father-in-law. She is forced to stay under his roof after her husband’s death.

Lady Aurelia: Wife of Matthew Darracott and mother of Vincent and Claud, she remains unaffected by the rages of her father-in-law Lord Darracott and maintains her cool under any situation. Descended from Earls, she has a commanding presence handling any situation with dignity.

Although the plot in this novel was easy to unravel, the characters were refreshingly different. Hugh, although rich and handsome, spent half of the book acting like a huge man with a low intellect. Although we knew he couldn’t be so (he’s the hero!) it was an interesting change. Anthea herself was fooled for a time which added to the fun. With the romance question cleared up in the beginning, Anthea is left free to fall in love – with a man she had told she would never marry! A light, refreshing read.

The Turn of the Screw

A young governess’ manuscript is read at a gathering in which ghost stories are being told – only this is not the typical ghost story. Hired by an enigmatic man to look after his orphaned nephew and niece, the unnamed governess tells of her journey to the country house Bly. She instantly falls in love with the angelic children Miles and Flora. Nothing could be more perfect. She has a good salary and complete control over the servants. But why all the rules? What is the mystery behind the previous governess’ death? But these questions come much later.

One day, the governess spots an unknown man on the premises. A trespasser she presumes. But on giving the description to the housekeeper, she is never more surprised when the man is identified as Peter Quint – the master’s previous valet who is now dead. This apparently terrifying turn of events is accepted both by the young woman and the housekeeper! It isn’t long before the two make another startling discovery: the children know of the spirits. The governess soon begins seeing Peter Quint and her predecessor Miss Jessel walking about the grounds and the house. The children are interacting with the dead – with an evil too appalling to think of. The real evil is never made clear; it is left to our imagination. The governess guards the children hoping to save their souls. One day things come to a head with tragic consequences.

Critical Analysis
I don’t usually like critically analysing a book, but in some cases it is called for. The Turn of the Screw is a book that has baffled many critics. Many questions remain unanswered to this day: For example, the nature of the evil the children are involved in with the valet and the previous governess is never fully revealed. Then many critics are doubtful as to whether the children were really evil and interacting with spirits; they assume that the governess herself could have been hallucinating as no clear statement is made otherwise. Against this argument is of course the fact that the boy Miles actually asks for Peter Quint before dying. Their is also the letter from Miles’ headmaster indicating bad behaviour – somewhat odd considering his angelic demeanor at Bly.

It has never been proved that Henry James meant The Turn of the Screw to be anything other than the straightforward ghost story most assume it to be. I myself can never get over the odd children. Children are usually portrayed as either good or ‘naughty’ – rarely pure evil. The effect is to say the least horrible! Before I started this blog I had never been in the habit of articulating my impressions about a book. Of course I knew whether I liked it or hated it, but this book lay in between. I didn’t like it – but neither did I hate it. It was eerie and uncomfortable with a depressing atmosphere, but had a strong pull. For those interested in more critical analysis go here.

Death Comes as the End

Rating: *****

Set in Ancient Egypt this is the most unique of Agatha Christie’s novels. The story begins with Renisenb, a young widowed mother who has come home to her father’s house, contemplating over her previous life and the life to come. Of a sweet, gentle and thoughtful nature, she ruminates over the unchanged condition of her family and remarks of it to the family friend, Hori. It isn’t long before things do change – for the worse.

Imhotep, the Mortuary Priest, comes home to his children after a long absence concerning his work. His children, Yahmose, Sobek, Renisenb and Ipy are confronted with an unwelcome addition to the family: Nofret, Imhotep’s mistress. Young and restless (my own little joke) her coming brings change into the family. Below I’m quoting Hori when he speaks to Renisenb,

“There is an evil that comes from outside, that attacks so that all the world can see, but there is another kind of rottenness that breeds from within – that shows no outward sign. It grows slowly, day by day, till at last the whole fruit is rotten – eaten away by disease.”

The words incite fear in Renisenb although she doesn’t truly understand them till the end. She instantly feels this evil when Nofret comes to live among them: she is the evil that has come from the outside and slowly destroys them all. As if overnight, everybody changes; Sobek is shown for the vain, blustering man that he is; Ipy becomes simply a spoiled child and Yahmose becomes weaker and is pushed around by his bossy wife Satipy. Renisenb sees all this with dismay. She tries to make peace with Nofret, but Nofret has secrets of her own.

With Imhotep away, his family believes the power lies with them. But Nofret makes sure to show them otherwise, with the result that Renisenb one day comes upon her cold, lifeless body at the foot of a cliff. Whoever killed Nofret did a good thing – so everybody says, but nobody feels so. Imhotep is soon resigned, but it is as if the ghost of Nofret still walks. The deaths continue. Nofret’s spirit is taking vengeance. Or is it the result of a human hand? Renisenb feels her apprehension growing as one after the other, the members of her family are murdered. Her grandmother and Hori strive to protect her until the day when Renisenb walks the same path Nofret did before tumbling to her death….

Some thoughts
I loved, loved, loved this book. The great atmosphere, the characters, the mystery – everything. This is the only time Agatha Christie strayed from writing about 20th century Europe, and all I can say is I wish she had done so more often. All her books are great but this book has something different, a different feel to it. Although the murderer is discovered more by a process of elimination than good honest detective work, the different culture, the foreign aspects keep you interested. The murderer is not apparent from the start, but eventually you see how it all was and Hori’s words to Renisenb make sense.

Poirot’s Early Cases

A collection of short stories dealing with cases early on in Poirot’s career. The short stories are ones that had been published in other books before and were later published together under the title Poirot’s Early Cases. Some of the cases are conducted with Arthur Hastings and some with his secretary Miss Lemon.

The most notable of the short stories is Double Clue. It is the first appearance of Countess Vera Rossakoff (the closest thing to a romance with Poirot). She appears in twice more in The Big Four, and The Labours of Hercules.

Other favorites are Wasp’s Nest in which Hercule Poirot comes to prevent a murder and leaves changing the murderer to be, The Lemesurier Inheritance where Poirot investigates the reality of family curse, The Chocolate Box, Poirot’s only failure and The Third Floor Flat in which a crime happens in Poirot’s own building.

Agatha’s short stories are as good as her novels and are fun to read. These stories include characters Captain Hastings, Miss Lemon, Inspector Japp (or Chief Inspector Japp as he later beomes), and Countess Vera Rossakoff.

The Sittaford Mystery

Rating: **

A group of people in a remote village get together one wintry evening. Nothing could be more natural than neighbors getting together for some tea; nothing could be more unnatural than the company. Sittaford House in the village of Sittaford is occupied by tenant Mrs. Willett and her daughter Miss Willet. Inviting the residents of the small village to tea and entertainment one evening, things take an unexpected turn.

Major Burnaby, Mr. Rycroft, Ronnie Garfield, Mr. Duke and the Willets sit down to a game of table-turning. The perfectly harmless game involves calling spirits to interact with the people sitting around a table. With the start of the rocking the seven people are alarmed at a serious message sent to them by one of the ‘spirits’: Captain Trevelyan – the owner of Sittaford House – has been murdered.

The shock that follows only increases when Major Burnaby – Captain Trevelyan’s closest friend – tells of his intention to go and check up on his friend. The only problem is the heavy snowfall making roads impassable and the two hours it would take to get to his residence! Nevertheless, his unease is to the extent that he resolves to go, only to discover the truth of the message.

The motives behind the murder are investigated by Inspector Narracott. Money seems the strongest motive with four relatives inheriting equal shares of the Captain’s money. Very early in the investigation, James Pearson, the victims nephew and one of the beneficiaries, is arrested on suspicion. It’s not long before his impressive and confident fiancee, Emily Trefusis sets out to prove his innocence. She ropes in a young and attractive journalist Charles Enderby to aid her in her investigation – not a very difficult task for a woman like Emily to make him fall in line with her plans. Together they set out to investigate the truth behind the mystery. Pretending to be cousins, they journey to Sittaford to become acquainted with Captain Trevelyan’s neighbors hoping to discover a clue.

The table-turning seems to be the important factor. Was it really a supernatural phenomena? or did someone with previous knowledge unconsciously reveal the truth? The key to the murder lies in the answers to these questions – something Inspector Narracott quickly realizes. But it is Emily who discovers the final clue – something much more prosaic: a pair of shoes.

Some thoughts
I didn’t really enjoy this novel. I found the identity of the murderer unsatisfactory and although Agatha Christie always makes sense (rarely are there loopholes in her plot) I couldn’t quite agree with her. The motive, although there, seemed to rely on one small clue to the murderer’s personality – something anyone would have missed and requires no great insight on the part of the reader. The clue to the mystery, for the most part, remains hidden from our eyes.

I labeled the character who investigate this mystery as ‘the young man in love with one of the women suspects’ because – well, you’ll see. Maybe it could also have been ‘the dominating woman who loves the main suspect!’

The Pale Horse

Rating: ****

On a foggy night, a certain Father Gorman is murdered after hearing the confession of a dying woman. Inspector Lejeune, the lead detective on the case, discovers a list of names hidden in the priest’s shoe. What significance do those names bear? What is the connection of those names to the dying woman? Far away at a cafe in Chelsea, Mark Easterbrook, a historian, watches as two girls fight and one pulls out tufts of the other’s hair. Later, he reads of the death of one of the girls.

By sheer coincidence, Mark Easterbrook comes into contact with the list of names. Slowly, he discovers that the list is a list of victims. The girl at the cafe, his god-mother, a friend etc. …Were these people being blackmailed? Or something more sinister? What was the dying woman involved in?

Mark Easterbrook believes from the onset that the list contains the names of dead people. He finds that many of the names are known to him as of people who have recently died. This list becomes connected in his mind with a name: the “Pale Horse” (a hugely coincidental connection). Casually mentioned by an empty headed girl at lunch one day, the place apparently deals with murdering people for money. Shortly, he himself travels to the Pale Horse and meets Thyrza Grey, its mysterious owner. At first inclined to dismiss the superstition attached to the place as ridiculous, he finds himself horrified by the rantings of its occupants. Thyrza Grey apparently believes in the concept of being able to kill people by suggestion. A lot of scientific jargon popular in Christie’s day is used and ‘thought-waves’ and ‘mediums’ are considered as the supernatural basis for the deaths as the victims – all rich – supposedly suffered a natural death.

The young historian finds himself in a curious position. He confides his suspicions to Ginger, a girl he met in the locality of the Pale Horse. Together, they hatch up a plan to approach the people involved as prospective clients. In a dangerous situation, it is in the end Inspector Lejeune who uncovers the true leader behind the ring.

Some thoughts
Re-reading was more fun than I thought. The Pale Horse had some interesting characters and a small romance to round it all off. I always enjoy Agatha Christie’s depiction of characters. Mark Easterbrook, although somewhat credulous as far as ‘thought-projection’ and ‘waves’ are concerned, was a reliable and intelligent hero. He provides most of the narration in the novel which ends on the normal twist: whodunnit is never so simple in Agatha’s mystery novels. It’s the suspense that keeps you hooked till the end.

The Pale Horse is one of Agatha’s later mysteries. Published in 1961, it contains famous characters Ariadne Oliver the detective fiction writer, Rev and Mrs. Dane Calthrop (also in The Moving Finger) and Colonel and Mrs. Despard (also in Cards on the Table).

I categorized this novel as one with the ‘young couple’. Agatha Christie occasionally stereotyped her characters. This is most apparent in novels with Miss Marple, whose method consists of ascertaining ‘types’ of people. Although it was generally done with foreigners to make it easier for her readers to understand them, in my opinion it stretched to the protagonists in certain novels.