When Miss Marple’s old acquaintance, Mr. Rafiel dies, she is never more surprised in her life when she gets a letter from his lawyers with a proposition for her. She is to undertake a task for Mr. Rafiel, without any clues as to what that task is; if she completes this task, she will gain twenty thousand pounds. Miss Marple intrigued, agrees somewhat doubtfully and immediately she is taken on a journey where little by little, the clues fall into place and she comes closer to solving the mystery.

This mystery was slightly disturbing to read. Agatha Christie treats the cases of rape and assault in a way I found appalling sometimes. The case of crimes committed by delinquents and  mentally unstable people is a major factor in this novel and lends an eerie and depressing atmosphere to the whole book. Basically, I felt the whole case along with the motive was too disquieting to read. One expects emotions such as hate, jealousy, lust, greed and revenge as being the cause of murder, but when it’s love, it makes it much more darker. I don’t know, perhaps I’m the only one who felt this way, but the novel left me sad.

Agatha Christie wrote quite a bit about the mentally unstable and referred a lot to the psychological theories new in her time. Many of her novels dealt with mental abnormalities and with dysfunctional relationships. She never shied away from discussing things such as sex and unwanted pregnancies (although she mostly blamed the girls or how girls didn’t have proper mothers to look after them anymore!). This novel is one of the queerer ones and actually, the plot has some similarities with Sleeping Murder, Miss Marple’s final case.

Mentions of known characters in this novel include Mr. Rafiel, who appears alongside Miss Marple in A Caribbean Mystery, Raymond and Joan, Miss Marple’s nephew and his wife, and Sir Henry Clithering, an old acquaintance of Miss Marple.  Cherry Baker, Miss Marple’s helper, also appears in this novel.

Some Miss Marple

At Bertram’s Hotel, and A Pocket Full of Rye; two mysteries starring Miss Marple:

 “Human nature is much the same everywhere, is it not?”

These words are the secret behind Miss Marple’s ability of solving murders; human nature is the same everywhere and she is adept at recognizing it for what it is. Like all of the author’s famous amateur detectives, Miss Marple often finds herself in the middle of a murder. In A Pocket Full of Rye it is through her maid Gladys that she becomes connected with the poisoning of Rex Fortescue, an old business man who had recently married a young and beautiful wife. The whole drama centers around the family. In At Bertram’s Hotel, Miss Marple is again confronted with crime when she comes to holiday at Bertram’s Hotel – the last place you could imagine murder to happen.

Rating: ****

I don’t really enjoy a Miss Marple mystery, but A Pocket Full of Rye was different. I was left saddened by the outcome in more ways than one. The identity of the murderer, his (I say his for convenience) method of committing the crime, his heartlessness and the cruelty of fate, all moved me to tears. I felt so much for all the characters – Gladys, the unattractive, eager maid always hoping for romance; Pat Fortescue, the awkwardly attractive and charming wife of Lance Fortescue who has faced a lot of misfortune in life; and the plain daughter, Elaine Fortescue – they were drawn with such care that I felt like I knew them. Agatha Christie is so good with those little details in a character that you sometimes exclaim “Exactly! That’s exactly how it is! How does she KNOW?!

It was an unresolved ending which made the book so much better. The crime is solved, but we are left to wonder over the fate of some characters, and the harshness of the reality of others. I’m being very cryptic, but I don’t want to give anything away – a murder mystery loses so much when you know what happens.

Rating: ***

As for At Bertram’s Hotel, what attracted me was the atmosphere of Bertram’s Hotel. I can see why the hotel would be so popular among Americans and all who want to experience Britain as it was! I myself felt tempted to hop in a plane and book a room at the hotel……any experience of that kind would be awesome. Miss Marple comes to Bertram’s Hotel to relive some memories of her own long forgotten past; but in her heart, she knows that the past is something best left behind. Although all Agatha Christie’s books turn out to be murder mysteries, the murder in this book comes quite late in the novel and isn’t the big draw of the plot. What is played up the most is Bertram’s Hotel itself and its old world charm. We also have a huge thieving racket going on in the background which somehow or other leads back to Bertram’s Hotel.

Evil Under the Sun

Rating: **

Murder seems to follow Hercule Poirot wherever he goes. Vacationing at the Jolly Roger on Leathercombe Bay, the private detective instinctively feels the presence of evil – a sense of impending doom. Most of the guests center on Arlena Stuart, actress and seductress of men, as the cause of all the tension. Later, when she is found strangled, not many mourn her death.

This is not one of my favorite mysteries by the Queen of Crime. It lacked both drama, and a suitable plot twist. But one thing that I learned on re-reading this novel was the author’s methodology. She uses mainly two devices which either help or deter us in solving the crime. First are the various hints which are supposed to lead us to the murderer and are therefore significant. You learn to look out for any seemingly unnecessary stories about characters, or some prolonged conversation which is intended to show us some hidden mystery; but side-by-side to this, we have misleading hints that seem significant, but some part of the information is withheld so that we jump to the wrong conclusion! She, as always, remains superb at misleading, but we eventually realize that the clues were always there to find.

Agatha Christie’s characters are never successfully portrayed on television. This is because they are not fully developed, round characters. She has a tendency to stereotype and that is where I think the difficulty arises. Agatha Christie normally categorizes her characters into various types. But people are more than just types, we have to look at them from so many angles and even then we only manage to catch a glimpse. This book had a lot of her normal characterization, for example, we have the typical American couple with the talkative wife and the compliant husband (the same type of talkative American is portrayed in Murder on the Orient Express), we have the quiet, inexpressive Englishman who shows no emotion over the death of his wife, and finally, the nice, slightly pretty wife who has ‘brains’, a college education and hence no sex appeal!

Nevertheless, some of her characters are unique and fun to read about – I liked the depiction of Arlena Stuart as a man-crazy woman, who was actually to be pitied (read and find out about the reality of her personalty!), and of Rosamund Darnley, a successful business woman, who feels the lack of a husband and children.

Colonel Weston appears in this novel, an old friend of Poirot’s, he had previously appeared in the novel Peril at End House. Mrs. Gardiner also mentions one of Poirot’s previous cases Death on the Nile. I love the whole illusion of a separate world that Agatha creates with her reappearing characters, and references to old cases.

The Moving Finger

Rating: ****

Jerry Burton, a pilot, and his sister Joanna move to the small village of Lymstock. The visit, which is to last some months, is undertaken for Jerry’s health. Recovering from a severe back injury, a result of his plane crash, he is advised by his doctor to take a break from stress and enjoy the relaxations of a small gossiping community. But Lymstock is hardly the place for a recovery when a few days after their move, the siblings receive a malicious anonymous letter; the letters have been going around the village for some time.

I loved the ironic humor with which Jerry and Joanna carried out their conversations. The inhabitants of Lymstock are gentle, simple people, and the humor with which Jerry and Joanna receive their comments made me laugh!

It’s the letters, sir. Wicked letters – indecent, too, using such words and all. Worse than I’ve ever seen in the Bible, even.’ says Mrs. Baker

Passing over an interesting side-line here, I said desperately…….

The ironic comedy ends the moment that the first anonymous letter hits home – a suicide occurs and all of a sudden the letters have taken on a more serious aspect. The first half of the book is occupied with finding out the identity of the letter-writer and in that search we become acquainted with an interesting assortment of characters. I especially liked Megan Hunter, Mrs. Symmington’s unwanted daughter, who had trouble fitting in and finding herself. She seems an awkward, overgrown child and the make-over scene is something to look forward too!

When the murder does come, it doesn’t hold center stage interest for me. Not because it wasn’t well written, but because I was more interested in the developing relations of Jerry and Joanna with the people in the village and how they settled in with life in a small village. I was also surprised to find Miss Marple coming in at the end to solve the crime. I had practically forgotten that she was in this novel because of the small role she plays. I would have liked it better if Jerry Burton had been the one to solve it (which he comes close to doing).

Mrs. Dane Calthrop also appears in this novel. I don’t know why, but her character always intrigues me. See my Agatha Christie page to read more on her and her husband.

The Mysterious Mr. Quin

A collection of short stories featuring the connoisseur of art and drama Mr. Satterthwaite and his friend, the mysterious Mr. Quin.

Rating: *****

Life has passed Mr. Satterthwaite by, something he regrets every day. But being just an observer has given him a certain skill – the skill to feel when a human drama is at hand. His experience has enabled him to sense the tension in the air, the unique commingling of events that forebodes some crisis. In all these short stories, Mr. Satterthwaite enters at the important moment. But although he can see it, it is the appearance of Mr. Quin that focuses his judgement. Adroitely yet subtly, Mr. Quin just comes and goes; he has the magical touch of drawing out what we all know – the facts – and guides those present, in each of these stories, towards solving the mystery.

A unique collection of detective stories. We never know who Mr. Quin is. An enigma, perhaps the hand of fate, or the spokesman of the dead, the role he plays is crucial. While reading, I eagerly waited for his appearance, for his guiding hand, and his effect on Mr. Satterthwaite. Besides being the force behind his friend, he was also the force driving us to read on. The stories are mysterious, intoxicating and eerily interesting. Mr. Quin permeates throughout the novel.

Description of Mr. Satterthwaite in The Coming of Mr Quin, the opening short story,

Mr Satterthwaite was sixty-two – a little bent, dried-up man with a peering face oddly elflike, and an intense and inordinate interest in other people’s lives. All his life, so to speak, he had sat in the front row of the stalls watching various dramas of human nature unfold before him. His role had always been that of the onlooker. Only now, with old age holding him in its clutch, he found himself increasingly critical of the drama submitted to him. He demanded something a little out of the common.

There was no doubt he had a flair for these things. He knew instinctively when the elements of drama were at hand. Like a war horse, he sniffed the scent.

and Mr Quin,

This was Mr Quin’s doing. It was he who was staging the play – was giving the actors their cues. He was at the heart of the mystery, pulling the strings, making the puppets work. He knew everything…

Besides the mysterious main character, I love this book for the various insights Agatha shows into characters through Mr. Satterthwaite. He has the gift of reading character and I find the medley of human being in her novels rather interesting.

I finished this book so fast because I couldn’t put it down and on the other hand, I wanted to savour each and every case, every word so I often went back to re-read a page. Torn between two opposites, I sat up until after midnight finishing the book!

Ordeal By Innocence

Rating: *****

“It’s not the guilty who matter. It’s the innocent.” So says Hester Argyle when Dr. Arthur Clagary brings her family shocking news: the news that their brother Jack Argyle was innocent of the crime of killing his mother. The crime for which he was convicted and died while serving his prison sentence.

Dr. Clagary is confused by the dismay with which the Argyles receive this good news. Why aren’t they happy that their brother was not a murderer? It soon dawns upon him that Jack as the murderer was the easy solution – the delinquent, the misfit, excuses could be made for his conduct. But with this happy illusion gone, the Argyle family is confronted with the fact that one of their own committed the crime. They have been living among a murderer and never known it. Now the innocent must suffer under the shadow of guilt. Whether the murderer will ever be found after so much time is doubtful. The innocent will never be cleared and will be suspected along with the truly guilty person.

Dr. Arthur Calgary feels responsible. He has destroyed the peace in their lives and shattered the security of the innocent. Now he feels that he must uncover the true identity of the murderer and free the other inmates of Sunny Point. And along the way, you’ll discover who he solves the crime for! He is ‘The Young Man in Love With One of the Woman Suspects’ although he is more middle aged…

Some thoughts
So I know the cover is horrible, but don’t don’t judge the book by its cover. This novel is one of the best. It deals with the concept of innocence – protecting those not guilty over everything else.

Christie’s mystery novels featuring no specific detective, no youthful pair in them are the most different, most intriguing and most psychological. They have a dark and dreary atmosphere to them. The books are a bit odd, more personal and more intricate than the others. Imagine walking from a sunshiny, normal world, into an eerie, shadowy one where things live in the dark. You don’t know what might happen, what type of people you may run into, and what the mystery is. It’s just queer and so fascinating to read.

I loved the psychological representation of Rachel Argyle, the mother, in this novel. Christie usually portrays crime as hereditary (which I disagree with) but in this novel she has also shown the psychological gap as a result of blood; how the adoptive mother, Rachel has difficulty in connecting with her adopted children. She can’t get past the barrier of blood. Although this isn’t strictly true, it was so in Rachel’s case because she herself was blind to anything but her own psychology. I’ve seen adoptive mothers find peace with adopted children and even understanding despite the blood barrier, but Rachel was unable to understand her children although she never knew it.

The Mystery of the Blue Train

Rating: ***

Jewels – the cause of so much sorrow and bloodshed. Billionaire Rufus Van Aldin doesn’t believe there is any danger when he gives the famous Heart of Fire, the biggest ruby worn by Catherine of Russia, to his adored daughter Mrs. Ruth Kettering. He soon repents his decision when she is found robbed and murdered on her way to France on the Blue Train.

Hercule Poirot, old and now retired is on the scene of the crime. The prime suspects are: Derek Kettering, husband of the victim, who is in trouble financially. The billionaire’s daughter was about to divorce him which would have landed him in deep trouble; Comte de la Roche, Ruth Kettering’s former lover and a man who knows how to seduce women and trick them into giving him money; the Marquis, an elusive jewel thief whose identity remains unknown to the police. Was the murder committed by the robber? Or are the two crimes separate?

According to the evidence of the maid, Ruth Kettering had an unexpected male visitor on the train. The clue to the murder lies in this evidence along with the fact that Ruth Kettering’s face had been disfigured. Why did the murderer feel it necessary to distort his victim’s face? Hercule Poirot, as the private detective on the scene, takes up the case.

Some thoughts
With a similar plot to the short story The Plymouth Express, I found myself guessing who the criminal was. I liked the characters in this novel and the small romance. I had forgotten some of the details and re-reading this was fun, although as a first-time read, I didn’t really enjoy it. For someone just starting Christie, I would suggest to start with one of my four star rating books.

An interesting feature of this novel is that Katherine Grey, one of the characters in the novel, is from St. Mary Mead! For those that don’t know, St. Mary Mead is Miss Marple’s village. Although many fans had requested a novel featuring both Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Agatha Christie felt that they could never work together on a case. But what is so fun about her books is that she has created a whole fictional world in which she re-uses certain detectives, suspects and even places so that we feel that Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot both exist, but in separate spheres.

Cards on the Table

Rating: ****

Mr. Shaitana is no ordinary personality. He is a collector. Approaching Poirot one day, the Mephistopheles-like character invites him to a dinner party in which he will show case his unique collection – a collection of murderers; those murderers who have gotten away with their crimes.

Four crime experts; four supposed criminals; that is Mr. Shaitana’s idea of a dinner party. Hercule Poirot meets Mrs. Oliver, the celebrated detective writer, Colonel Race, a Secret Service Agent, and Superintendent Battle from the Scotland Yard, all representatives of law and order. The other mysterious guests include murderers Dr. Roberts, Mrs. Lorrimer, Miss Anne Meredith, and Major Despard. At the end of a game of bridge, the crime experts come to take their leave of Mr. Shaitana, only to find him murdered. The only four in the room with Mr. Shaitana were the other four guests playing bridge. It is up to the others to find the murderer from within the murderers.

Some thoughts
The interesting thing about this case was that the authorities had absolutely no evidence to go upon. The deduction had to be purely psychological and Hercule Poirot is the king of psychology. The motive is obviously a previous murder that one of the guests thought Mr. Shaitana had discovered. Poirot reveals the purpose of the party to his law-enforcement friends and now they must discover the guests’ previous murders as well as Mr. Shaitana’s murderer.

This case also has the interesting feature of including four of Agatha Christie’s most famous characters: Colonel Race, Superintendent Battle, Ariadne Oliver and of course Hercule Poirot. Each have starred in other novels but this is the only time when they all come together.

I was so tempted to rate this five stars. The only reason I didn’t, was, that although the case was one of the best (even better than some five stars), none of the characters really moved me. It was psychologically intriguing but the story was not as touching as it was in Murder on the Orient Express or Death Comes as the End. But as I said, I’m tempted……..

Murder on the Orient Express

Rating: *****

An evil face; that is what Hercule Poirot notices when he first lays eyes on the man at a hotel restaurant. Later, on the Orient Express, he sees him again: Mr. Rachett. When the man comes to him for protection, Poirot refuses and less than 24 hours later, Mr. Rachett is found stabbed to death in his berth. The train is stranded in a snowdrift, and the passengers of the Stamboul-Calais coach fall under suspicion. Oddly, all the berths are occupied in the middle of winter – an unlikely time for travel. Circumstances are such, that only a passenger from the Calais coach could have been responsible…..Who is the murderer? Is it someone on the train? or did the murderer escape before the snowdrift?

The chief difficulty seems to be the identity of the murdered man. Fleeing from a past in America, Mr. Rachett obviously had enemies. Inspecting his berth, Poirot finds many pieces of evidence – almost too much evidence. Among them, a burned piece of paper on which Poirot discerns a name: Daisy Armstrong. The dead man is discovered to be none other than Casseti, the notorious kidnapper, who fled the country after his money successfully saved him from the charge of kidnapping and killing Daisy Armstrong, a three year old child. Is someone related to the Armstrongs on the train? Poirot hunts through the passenger list and interrogates everyone, but can find no connection. Everybody has an alibi, no one seems implicated, and yet…….things seem to be too neatly worked out.

In the end, it is the first clue that helps Poirot solve the case: the overcrowded Calais coach. The evidence itself is a hopeless tangle leading him first to one suspect, then another. Poirot, more than ever before, must rely solely on his ‘grey cells’ and solve the murder before the snowdrift is cleared. Mr. Bouc, the director of the line, appeals to Poirot thus, 

Interview the passengers on the train, view the body, examine what clues there are and then – well, I have faith in you! I am assured that it is no idle boast of yours. Lie back and think – use (as I have heard you say so often) the little grey cells of the mind – and you will know!

Some thought
Atmosphere. That’s what you feel when you open Murder on the Orient Express. The whole book is steeped in it. So much so, that you forget to follow the facts. Who is the murderer is a faint question in the background and you yourself are intoxicated by all the trimmings: the setting, the characters, the elusive pieces of evidence. It’s so much fun to read this book. One of my top Agatha Christie recommendations.

How many times has Hercule Poirot said that he does not approve of murder? Well, in this case you’ll see him tested. It is one of the cases that never fails to move me. Whatever your position on revenge may be, Murder on the Orient Express just might change it.

Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes showdown

The Hound of the Baskervilles is my first Sherlock Holmes read and imagine my surprise when I was introduced to Dr. Watson. Perhaps I should explain; I’m an ardent Agatha Christie fan and have read all her novels loving each and every one; in Dr. Watson, I saw how Hastings had been created. Almost point for point the two men are the same. Innocent and naive, believing in ideals and in their mentor, longing for approval from said mentor, believing that they themselves had learned a thing or two about detection and of course that slight annoyance at being used and information being withheld from them because of their beautifully transparent natures. Do I make it clear? Yes, I believe so, because as far as I can see, Dr. Watson and Captain Hastings are one and the same. The only thing they don’t have in common is their profession; also, Hastings is more chivalrous than the doctor! I could say that Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes are also identical but there I found some differences – slight, but enough to make them widely different men.

Both Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes are renowned detectives. Even there natures are somewhat similar in that they are both egotistical, and reticent about their discoveries till the last minute (Poirot more so than Sherlock), but in their detection methods I found a big difference. Poirot is forever about the ‘grey cells’ and arranging ‘the ideas’ with ‘order and method’. Physically gallivanting about on foot and searching for clues is solely Hastings’ passion and something Poirot never deems necessary. It is not so for Sherlock Holmes. He examines and looks at every footprint, searchs in every nook and cranny and for every single physical piece of evidence at the scene of a crime. Poirot usually leaves this to the detective assigned to the case. But to Holmes this is important. Nevertheless, both men are geniuses who know the art of deduction.

Hercule Poirot is the type to recline in his chair and fit together the pieces of the puzzle. All he needs is some quiet time to organize his thoughts. Sherlock Holmes, to a certain extent, is the same. But as I said before, his detection is more scientific. I don’t mean to stress his scientific approach because he was not at all scientific – only as far as comparison goes, he is more scientific than Poirot.

As for physical characteristics, who doesn’t know of Poirot’s egg shaped head, and his famous moustache? He is not at all a handsome man, but then he plays on that and his insignificance allows him to be taken non-seriously, tricking the criminal into letting down his guard. Sherlock Holmes is decidedly handsome (I think Robert Downey Jr. attests that fact!) and doesn’t have the advantage of fooling people into revealing their secrets. Nevertheless, this doesn’t keep him back and he is more than enough of a detective to compete with Hercule Poirot.

Then, we also have the styles of the two authors. Conan Doyle likes to reveal the mystery as we move along. That is, we are slowly shown and have it explained to us. At least that was the way it was in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Agatha Christie, on the other hand, creates a sort of atmosphere in which we have all the facts – but are led to look another way. The mystery is only revealed in a gathering at the end of the novel. This atmosphere is detectable on reading the book for a second time. You then begin to see how each fact was presented to us from the beginning, and how we missed it.

Wait till next time to read my opinions on Irene Adler and Countess Vera Rosakoff. So far, I haven’t had a chance to read an Irene Adler story. Look for my later comparisons as I read more Sherlock Holmes.