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!

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.”

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.

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.

Book Shopping Mania

I went to an old bookshop the other day and my eye was caught by a whole shelf full of Agatha Christie…let’s be honest, I was looking for something to buy and I found it! I couldn’t decide which of her novels to pick (I wanted to take them ALL), but I chose four – after about debating half an hour with myself. Expect reviews on them soon. They are:

The Sittaford Mystery: As I’ve said before, I’ve read all of Christie’s mystery novels, but some I remember better than others. This particular novel is a complete blank…except I know who the murderer is. It is a new way to read a book for me. I never, and I mean never enjoy knowing before hand the outcome of a novel, but in this case I can remember nothing else; no motive, no method – nothing. It’s just that I know who the murderer is so there is no ‘shocking discovery’ in store for me.

The Pale Horse: It may seem odd to you the disjointed things I remember about these novels, but in The Pale Horse, all I can remember is that it is about a murder-for-hire ring. Nothing else. So it is sort of a first time read for me.

Poirot’s Early Cases: A collection of short stories, not only concerning Poirot’s early cases as the title suggests, but cases from various points in his life.

Death Comes as the End: A favorite Christie of mine. This novel is set in Ancient Egypt. I love everything about this book from the characters to the style of writing.

Then I picked up some other books as well. First time reads:

The Unknown Ajax by Georgette Heyer: Another Heyer read is something I find irresistible. I’m going through her novels slowly because when you’re all out you’re all out! Re-reading is fun of course, but nothing compared to opening a book for the first time.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James: Just picked up this book because I was in the mood for mystery after Agatha Christie and the back of the cover says ‘The Turn of the Screw is the classic ghost story for which Henry James is best remembered.’
The Aspern Papers by Henry James: The Henry James’ book came as two books in one – something I realized only when I had come home from the book shop. The back cover states that it is ‘a tale of Americans in Europe’. I’m already interested.