In the event that anyone is interested, this was the last book I read in 2020, eked out over a few days of the post-Xmas holiday week and probably, though I can’t recall for certain nine months later, finished on Old Year’s Night (such timing has the sort of symmetry that appeals to me). Agatha Christie strikes me as one of those writers who is so quintessentially English that she seems to embody the spirit of the country (Wodehouse is another). I find the woman endlessly fascinating in a guilty pleasure sort of way, and have watched all of the Poirot TV series starring David Suchet and the silver screen iterations of the character, but where Miss Marple is concerned I am somewhat more easygoing in my devotion. Call me sexist if you must, but the part of me that finds a funny little man in dapper dress capable of solving crimes that baffle the police, baulks at the idea of an elderly lady from some bucolic backwater accomplishing the same feats of investigation. It’s a suspension of disbelief too far for me.
Despite the Christie-love being trumpeted here, I’ve only ever read the one book by her before now, Dead Man’s Folly in 1991, and I wasn’t so struck with it that gulping down the author’s entire oeuvre became a thing for me. Which brings us to the present day and Midwinter Murders, a collection of stories featuring several of Christie’s characters in their element. “Fireside Mysteries from the Queen of Crime” reads the subtitle for this volume, released just in time to pick up on the Christmas trade, and in her introduction “Christmas at Abney Hall”, Dame Agatha remembers the Christmases of her childhood, detailing them in words guaranteed to elicit a twinge or two of envy in the rest of us. Fortunately she didn’t let her love of the season put it out of bounds for murder.
Naturally enough, we open with Poirot relating to right hand man Hastings the details of a case he investigated while a Belgian policeman, the poisoning of a prominent man through means of “The Chocolate Box”, and Poirot uses the case to demonstrate his own fallibility. It’s an engaging and well written piece, with a wry touch of humour at the end. It’s Miss Marple’s turn in the chair, relating details of “A Christmas Tragedy”, how when staying at a Hydro she failed to prevent the murder of a doting wife by her husband, and the cunning way in which he established his innocence, the story eloquently and engagingly told, with an inventive plot, albeit one that slightly stretches credibility. A group of people marking the arrival of the New Year are interrupted by “The Coming of Mr Quin” and under his guidance proceed to unravel the mystery of a suicide that took place ten years previous, with pleasant results for one of the listeners, the story clever and obliquely told through the narration of Mr Satterthwaite. It’s an ingenious piece that recognises and plays on the element of drama inherent in any murder story, and in the person of Quin gives us an intriguingly different hero, one who seems almost omniscient, though one could make a case for his being an aspect of Satterthwaite’s personality (all Christie’s stories about the character also feature Satterthwaite).
“The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest” is that it contains a dead body and the police believe they have the murderer in custody, but thankfully Poirot is on hand to prevent a miscarriage of justice by puzzling out the identity of the real killer and the ingenious way in which the crime was committed. Despite the subject matter, this struck me as a gentle story, cosy at its heart, and one that takes its time in unpacking all the delights it contains, doing so with a wry, self-effacing humour. Tommy and Tuppence take on the case of “The Clergyman’s Daughter”, which involves hidden treasure and a supposedly haunted house, with the real pleasure of the story resting in the amiable and lively banter between the two leads as they go about their business. In parenthesis I can’t help wondering if this upper class couple were an influence in Hammett’s creation of Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man). Poirot is called in to investigate when the body of a woman is found on“The Plymouth Express” and the trail leads him to a jewel thief and his accomplice, despite all the red herrings that litter the path in an almost textbook example of Christie plotting at work.
In “Problem at Pollensa Bay” society fixer Mr Parker Pyne gets dragged into the romantic difficulties of the English abroad, much to his chagrin. While as readable as any of the others, this struck me as rather a trite and silly story, something Wodehouse might have written but without the humour. “Sanctuary” begins with the discovery of a dying man in the church doorway, then evolves into a story of jewel theft and murder, with Miss Marple on hand to ensure everything gets put to rights. The plot seems slightly contrived to me, but the telling is so amiable and hearty, with characters that Christie seems to love, that you can forgive her much. With Poirot bedridden with influenza, the trusty Hastings is sent to solve “The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge”, and of course he jumps to all the wrong conclusions leaving it up to the Belgian sleuth to unravel what really happened. The solution is ingenious, if stretching credibility a tad or more, while the intervention of fate resolution isn’t really satisfying, more a matter of convenience than aesthetics.
In Corsica with his friend the Duchess, Mr Satterthwaite travels to a spot christened “The World’s End”, there to witness the intervention of his old acquaintance Mr Quin (first name Harley, of course), who solves a crime and saves a young life. This is a convoluted story, but with some deft touches of characterisation and a hint of the numinous in the text, including an end note of true ambiguity. In retrospect though, you have to wonder why Mr Quin didn’t show up when the crime was originally committed and spare everyone a lot of misery. More tomfoolery with “The Manhood of Edward Robinson”, which is recovered through the purchase of a sports car and involvement in the fun and games of young aristocrats, which means jewel theft, so that our hero becomes a man and lays down the law to his beloved Maud. This all seemed frightfully silly and old fashioned, and I fear for the sanity of anyone who took it seriously even back when it was written. And we close with “Christmas Adventure”, which has Poirot at a country house for the season and solving the mystery of a missing ruby. A splendid end to an entertaining selection of tales, if rather dated.
Christie is, ultimately, for me at least, a feel good author rather than a model of authenticity, to be admired for her plotting, but with a prose style that is workmanlike rather than a thing of beauty. I enjoyed this but doubt if I’ll read any more of her books, as life is too short and there are many better writers (though none as successful), but I’m waiting with bated breath for the Kenneth Branagh Murder on the Nile to hit the multiplex.