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2015 reading challenges Agatha Christie Blast from the Past Crime Fiction Mark Bailey Reviews vintage mystery bingo gold

Agatha Christie – Death in the Clouds (1935)

Cover of Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie (painted by Tom Adams)
Cover of Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie (painted by Tom Adams)

Hercule Poirot is a passenger on board a flight from Paris to Croydon (which was the main London airport at that time). Sometime before landing, one of the passengers is found dead – it is Madame Giselle who is a wealthy French moneylender; initially the cause of death is said to be a reaction to a wasp sting but Poirot spots the true cause of death: a poison-tipped dart which has been apparently fired from a blowgun. The case then becomes one of murder.

It is a classic locked room mystery with a murder being committed in a space occupied by thirteen people with no-one witnessing the crime and all of them conceivably could have a motive for the death. The joy is in the puzzle and trying to solve it before Poirot the first time you read it and enjoying the journey thereafter.

This is another of my favourite Agatha Christie novels and edges out other Agatha Christie  contenders Murder on the Orient Express and The Mystery of the Blue Train as my L6 entry (“Read One Book that involves a mode of transportation”) on the 2015 Vintage Mystery Bingo Golden Age Card because of the Tom Adams cover of the Fontana paperback version that I read when I was young (which is the image at the top of the page) – this is just a gorgeous piece of art; my absolute favourite Tom Adams cover is that for The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (below) which is inspired by John William Waterhouses 1894 painting The Lady of Shalott [looking at Lancelot from the Window] (further below).

Cover of The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side by Agatha Christie (painted by Tom Adams)
Cover of The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side by Agatha Christie (painted by Tom Adams)

John William Waterhouses 1894 painting The Lady of Shalott [looking at Lancelot from the Window]
John William Waterhouses 1894 painting The Lady of Shalott [looking at Lancelot from the Window]
2 good books on Tom Adams’ work in general (and the Agatha Christie covers he has painted in particular) are

  • “Tom Adams Uncovered: The Art of Agatha Christie and Beyond” by Tom Adams & John Curran, 2015
  • “Agatha Christie: The Art of Her Crimes” by Tom Adams & Julian Symons, 1981

 

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2015 reading challenges Crime Fiction Margery Allingham Mark Bailey Reviews vintage mystery bingo gold

Margery Allingham – The Case of the Late Pig (1937)

Cover for The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham, Penguin 1956 edition
Cover for The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham, Penguin 1956 edition

This is the 9th novel featuring the mysterious Albert Campion

Lugg is reading the obituaries from the Times aloud to Campion one morning and comes across one for an old school nemesis of Campion – R.I. “Pig” Peters who has died aged 37. In the morning post that day Campion had received an anonymous letter inviting him to the funeral which has a curious reference to Moles (“Why should the mole move backwards? — it is not yet eleven.“). Campion attends the funeral where he meets Kingston, a bored local doctor who had looked after Peters in his dying days, and an old school chum Gilbert Whippet who also received an anonymous letter with the obscure references to moles.

Five months later in June, Campion receives a panicked phone call from a friend saying something about a murder. He drives down to the friend’s home where her father reveals the most assuredly dead body of R.I. “Pig” Peters, his head having been caved in no more than 12 hours earlier.

A second funeral follows attended by some of the visitors from Peters’ first funeral and some not-so-grieving acquaintances of the late Pig. A little English village is now becoming very crowded indeed.

Thus begins Campion’s search, leading to a missing body, a grisly scarecrow and one too many beers for Lugg before he discovers the madman that planned more than a few murders.

 

I came to Margery Allingham relatively late in life having read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen in my teens (and before – I do have a school report from when I was aged 11 chastising my parents for letting me read “age-inappropriate literature” such as Christie & Doyle) and Dorothy L Sayers in my twenties. I read my first Margery Allingham in my 40s after re-watching the Peter Davison Campion series when it was released on DVD.

This is a very short novel (technically a novella as it is just under 40000 words) and is very fast moving as a consequence with subplots that efficiently establish character and add a touch of levity to the proceedings without interrupting the emphasis of the novel.

It is unusual in that it is the only story told from Campion’s own point of view.

In my opinion, Allingham does tend to vary a lot in her work (in style and readability – I personally just cannot get into Tiger in the Smoke which many people say is her best) and I think that this is a good starting point for Allingham & Campion as it is a fairly traditional fairplay mystery with no rug-pulling twists and you can work out the perpetrator, method and motive from the evidence that is presented.

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2015 reading challenges Agatha Christie Crime Fiction Mark Bailey Reviews vintage mystery bingo gold

Agatha Christie – The ABC Murders (aka The Alphabet Murders) (1936)

Cover of Agatha Christie - The ABC Murders (1936)
Cover of Agatha Christie – The ABC Murders (1936)

This novel was chosen as my L2 entry (“One Book that has been made into a Movie or TV Show”) on the 2015 Vintage Mystery Bingo Golden Age Card for 3 reasons – it is one of my favourite Agatha Christie novels, it has an unusual narrative structure and it is has been dramatised in some interesting & different ways.

The novel follows the murders of the title and their investigation as seen by Hastings, Poirot’s old friend. Before each murder, Poirot receives typed letters signed by A.B.C. giving the date and location of the next murder which move alphabetically – Alice Ascher is a tobacco shop owner who is killed in her shop in Andover, Betty Barnard is a flirty waitress killed in Bexhill and Sir Carmichael Clarke is a wealthy man killed at his home in Churston. With each victim is left a copy of an ABC railway guide.

The unusual structure is that each chapter is narrated by Hastings followed by a description of events in the life of Alexander Bonaparte Cust, a travelling salesman who received a head injury in the Great War and is subject to memory blackouts and constant headaches. This third-person narrative is supposedly reconstructed by the first-person narrator, Hastings continuing Christie’s commitment to experimenting with points of view as seen most famously in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

 

I like the ABC Murders because it is a chase novel with multiple mysteries – Is Cust ABC? Does he know if he is ABC? If he isn’t then who is? Why are the murders occurring? Can Poirot prevent a murder and break the sequence?

 

There are 3 contrasting TV/Movie adaptations that spring to mind

Lobby Card for The Alphabet Murders (1965)
Lobby Card for The Alphabet Murders (1965)

There is the 1965 film The Alphabet Murders with Tony Randall as Hercule Poirot which does emphasise comedy (and has a rather buffoonish Poirot) but I still quite like it as a film although Agatha Christie had some major issues with the script which is why Zero Mostel dropped out (for scheduling reasons) and was replaced by Tony Randall.

Video Cover for the ABC Murders (1992)
Video Cover for the ABC Murders (1992)

There is the 1992 TV version with David Suchet as Hercule Poirot which is much more faithful to the novel albeit with some minor changes and characters omitted mainly to fit in the time constraint of the broadcast slot available.

Still from Les Petits Meurtres d'Agatha Christie - Les meurtres ABC (2009)
Still from Les Petits Meurtres d’Agatha Christie – Les meurtres ABC (2009)

Finally, there is the 2009 version in the French TV series Les Petits Meurtres d’Agatha Christie entitled Les meurtres ABC which takes some very substantial liberties with the concept of Poirot (slightly less so with the story) and is also fairly comedic – it is Agatha Christie but not as we usually know it; this is one episode of the series that is available with English subtitles on DVD. I personally have a soft spot for this series (especially the later ones with Inspector Swan & Alice Avril (a Journalist)) but it is not one for the purists.

 

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2015 reading challenges Blast from the Past Crime Fiction Edmund Crispin Mark Bailey vintage mystery bingo gold

Frequent Hearses by Edmund Crispin (1950)

Cover of Frequent Hearses by Edmund Crsipin (1950)
Cover of Frequent Hearses by Edmund Crsipin (1950)

This is the 7th Gervase Fen novel by Edmund Crispin.

A young actress, Gloria Scott [1], drowns after throwing herself off Waterloo Bridge. The news sends shock-waves around the film studio at Long Fulton where Gervase Fen, Oxford Don and amateur criminologist, happens to be working as a consultant on a bio-pic of the life of Alexander Pope the poet ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Pope ) . With help from his friend, Inspector Humbleby, this tragic loss of young life leads them to many more dark places – Ms. Scott’s room has been searched and all signs of her real identity have been removed. Mere minutes before Humbleby interrogates her co-workers, one of them, a lecherous cameraman, is poisoned and more deaths are to follow.

This novel is set in a world that Bruce Montgomery (the real person behind the nom de plume of Edmund Crispin) knew well as a professional composer most often of film music (see http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0599736/ for a full list of the 32 films he worked on from 1949 to 1966 – 1961s Raising the Wind, a broad comedy, is an especially interesting film for fans of his novels as he wrote both the screenplay and the score for this film from the Carry On directing/producing team with a cast of classic British film comedy stars)

This does seem to be the Fen that people seem to be most divided over with some disliking it intensely – the usual criticisms are (1) the absence of the killer for most of the novel – he/she appears in person or by letter only at the beginning and end, (2) that Fen tends to stay in the background for much of the book and (3) the comedy is too much in the foreground.

Personally this is one of my favourite Fens precisely because of there is a more sophisticated level of humour than with some of the other Fen books mostly throughout (the start is a bit iffy from a humour perspective) and the fact that Fen has to act as an observer here because this is a world that is quite distinct from his usual intellectual milieu so we see what he sees. There are crimes but I am not sure it can really be classed as a pure mystery.

This is almost the end of the run of Fen novels in the 1940s and 1950s, The Long Divorce followed in 1952 along with some short short stories collected in Beware of the Trains (1953) and Fen Country (1979). One more novel appeared in 1977 – The Glimpses of the Moon – but Crispin/Montgomery turned to reviewing, editing anthologies (mostly of SF but there are 2 good Crime/Mystery anthologies) and writing Film Music (at least until the mid-1960s) – see David Whittles Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: A Life in Music and Books for more details of his life.

 

I aim to complete my reviews of the set of Fen novels and short stories at some point in the future.

 

[1] Presumably the stage name of the actress is an homage to “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, collected in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes