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 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.

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.

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.