Rating: three out of five
Year of Publication: 1973 (UK Collins Crime Club)
Motive for Murder: Evidence / Identity
Plot: The Beresfords, now in their seventies, are settling down in their new home at Hollowquay, a coastal village in East England. At retirement age one physically becomes tired easily, yet the mind is another matter. Tuppence’s looking at some old books in the attic brings about another adventure – the last one. By chance, in a children’s book, she finds a number of words underlined which then, after pondering over them, form a message. Mary Jordan did not die naturally. It was one of us. I think I know which one.
Who is Mary Jordan? Nobody seems to know any Jordans having lived or buried in the village. Although some still remember about the Parkinsons, the family who used to live in the Beresfords’s. The book seems to have belonged to the young Alex Parkinson. While taking the dog for a walk in the churchyard, Tommy spots the boy’s grave, whom died at the age of fourteen.
Furthermore, were Parkinson and Jordan related? If Jordan had been killed, how about the boy, having died young? Rumours have it that Jordan was a governess and a German spy before the outbreak of the First World War.
In the meantime, Tommy is intrigued having been told by his old contacts that the village was used as the centre of an early fascist movement in Britain. Coupled with the revelation about an English Naval officer who supported the Fifth Column, it fascinates him more what role Jordan has meant to play. Was she a foe or friend? Who killed her?
Little does Tuppence realise that her life is in danger once more.
The last book in Tommy and Tuppence’s series sums up the husband and wife’s previous adventures as the unlikely and the unofficial British agents. It harks back to the days of The Young Adventurers, the hunt of Jane Finn and confidential intelligence information concealed in a nursery rhymes’s book (N or M – see the Notes). So it is of a little surprise that in the pages of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow Tuppence finds a treasure, which then spurs on a treasure hunt in the house they have moved in.
To begin with, the setting is an interesting period before the outbreak of the First World War. In 1913, once upon a time an English Naval officer is revealed as a German Spy by an undercover British agent. Nonetheless, Mary Jordan, despite of her hard work was unable to present the damning evidence timely. She was poisoned and died later while the incriminating papers in the form of letters had vanished, surely having been hidden somewhere. For this reason Tuppence must figure out where they were and drags Tommy into it.
Next, the first hurdle they have to clear is that nobody actually knows what happened. The trails have gone cold, but recollections and reminiscences of elderly people. Nevertheless, just as in Sleeping Murder (see the Notes), somehow someone knows. Moreover, Tuppence’s ‘elephants’ are not much different from Ariadne Oliver’s (see Notes On Elephants Can Remember).
Next, the second challenge is to separate facts from myths, tales from truths. Christie gives readers quite a number of red herrings and details, from various references to Edwardian era to classic titles of children’s English literature; from Tommy and Tuppence’s domestical issues to an old gardener with a wealth of knowledge about yesteryears.
Then lines after lines of conversations with myriad characters; tales retold and recalled in which truths and myths are intertwined. Christie can be quite convincing in doing so, for halfway the plot takes a U-turn as Mary Jordan’s status is clarified. In fact, it takes only a sentence to clarify it. ‘She is one of our lot,’ says Mr. Robinson to Tommy.
Be that as it may, Tuppence’s list of clues becomes the most fascinating aspect of the plot (see the Twists). Seemingly nonsense, a list containing vintage toys, a pair of Victorian porcelain gardening stools and Wagner’s Lohengrin altogether are the solution. Christie’s whimsical sense of humour does not sound to have receded with age.
My question is: does it matter that the evidence must be recovered? First and foremost the people concerned are already dead. What would Tuppence gain by dwelling into the matter? Was it the principle that truth must come up somehow on the part of the authoress? Or, does Tuppence see Jordan in herself and therefore she should complete the other’s mission? (see Clues).
Of all the characters, Isaac Boldicott stands out. The old gardener cannot do much around the garden but he has sharp memories about people and events. Through his rambling Tuppence is introduced to ‘Truelove, ’ ‘KK’ and ‘Mathilde.’ Was he ‘the East Gate Warden’? For in Flecker’s poem, it says ‘…This is the song of the East Gate Warden; when he locks the great gate and smokes in his garden…’
If anything, Boldicott reminds me of old Merdell in Dead Man’s Folly (see the Notes); the difference is that Merdell keeps himself to himself, except that he talks to his granddaughter. His remark to Poirot ‘ Always Folliats in Nasse’ is crucial. On the other hand, Boldicott is indiscreet about things and talks too much. Yet, unlike Merdell’s granddaughter, of whom being strangled to death, Boldicott’s grandson Henry invites himself to help Tuppence in her ‘research’ with his Junior Brigade friends.
In this regard, Christie seems to reflect Alex Parkinson in Henry Boldicott, and Mary Jordan in Tuppence. Here is the guessing part for readers, as to whether Parkinson had an understanding about his smart governess; that her demeanour had been distinctive and may not have been quite like the former governesses whom had come before. Children’s blind understanding, so to speak.
As regard to the identity of ‘Mary Jordan,’ Christie also leaves readers to fill the gap about this ‘ghost’ character. In the book readers will find her real name, that she is half Austrian and thus fluent in German. Nonetheless, how old was she when she died, who killed her and where she would have been buried are another story to be written.
Lastly, the title. I gather that James Elroy Flecker’s eponymous poem might derive from Christie’s reminiscences to the days of travelling in Syria in the thirties, which is then wittingly recalled with love in Come, Tell Me How You Live (see the Notes). More importantly, that ‘The Laurels,’ Tuppence and Tommy’s house suggests Greenway, The Mallowans’s much loved holiday home while Hannibal the dog is in reality is Bingo, their second terrier (see The Most Fascinating Character). Nevertheless, what is in ‘Postern of Fate’? I cannot deduce why it is chosen rather than the names for the other three gates – Fort of Fear, the Desert Gate or Disaster’s Cavern? Perhaps it is just simply the fate that this is the last book written by Agatha Christie Mallowan.
In the meantime, do leave a comment, will you, if you happen to spot Jordan’s real name. 🙂
Four great gates has the city of Damascus…
And four Great Wardens, on their spears reclining
All day long stand like tall stone men
And sleep on the towers when the moon is shining
This is the song of the East Gate Warden
When he locks the great gate and smokes in his garden
Postern of Fate, the Desert Gate, Disaster’s Cavern, Fort of Fear
The Portal of Bagdad am I, and Doorway of Diarbekir
(the first part of ‘The Gates of Damascus’ by J.E. Flecker)
Tuppence’s List of Clues:
-Mary Jordan did not die naturally
-Oxford and Cambridge porcelain Victorian seats
-Cain and Abel
-Albert sees Miss Mullins put something in Tuppence’s cup of coffee through an enlarged crack in the Tuppence’s bedroom door.
Cast of Characters:
Albert (the Beresfords’s manservant)
Andrew (Tommy and Tuppence’s grandson)
Colonel Atkinson (Tommy’s contact)
The Beresfords (Tommy and Tuppence)
Beatrice (the Beresfords’s cleaner)
Mrs. Boldicott (Isaac’s daughter-in-law and Henry’s mother)
Clarence (Henry’s friend at Junior Brigade)
Miss Collodon (the woman Tommy has employed to do some research)
Mr. Crispin (a British agent who takes cover as a gardener for the Beresfords)
Deborah (the Beresfords’s daughter)
Miss Dorothy Little (‘The Parish Pump’ – of the local Women Institute)
Gwenda (Beatrice’s friend, who works in the post office)
Hannibal (the Beresfords’s dog)
Henry Boldicott (Isaac’s grandson)
Isaac Boldicott (an old gardener, Henry’s grandfather)
Janet (Tommy and Tuppence’s granddaughter)
Miss Irish Mullins (a.k.a. ‘Dodo’ by Mr. Crispin, a facist)
‘Mutton-chop’ (a nickname for Tommy’s friend, an inactive agent)
Mr. Robinson (in the Intelligent posing as a City banker)
Rosalie (Tommy and Tuppence’s granddaughter)
Mrs. Winifred Griffin (nee Morrison, an elderly neighbour who knows about the Parkinsons)
A grizzled man (Tommy’s friend and old contact)
The Most Fascinating Character: Hannibal
In A Murder Is Announced, Tiglath Pileser, the Vicar’s dog, gives Miss Marple a clue about the drama unfolded at Miss Letitia Blacklock’s house.
It is little wonder that Hannibal, the Beresfords’s Manchester Terrier becomes a hero. The namesake apparently is based not upon another Assyrian king but Count Hannibal (1901). Nonetheless, it might resemble the appearance and traits of the Mallowans’s second terrier, Bingo.
While there is no need to describe that Hannibal is part of the family, no reference has been made as to how ‘he’ has come into the possession of Tuppence and Tommy. Whose idea to get a dog? Was ‘he’ a present from their grown-up children? There is no mention either of getting a dog in the previous novel of theirs, By The Pricking Of My Thumb (see the Notes).
Christie’s soft spot to this canine creature sees her refer Hannibal as a ‘he’ than ‘it’ and therefore having given ‘it’ a voice. At any rate the terrier is part of the team; it guides Tommy to find Alexander Parkinson’s grave and knows – sniff, to be precise- which one is either enemies or friends.
His looks are described as:
‘…Hannibal was a small black dog, very glossy with interesting tan patched on his behind and each side of his cheeks. He was a Manchester terrier of very pure pedigree and he considered himself to be on a much higher level of sophistication and aristocracy than any other dog he met.’
Furthermore is the character:
He (Tommy) did not know if it was worse or better that Tuppence should have Hannibal. Hannibal would certainly allow no harm to come to Tuppence. The question was, might Hannibal do some damage to other people? He was friendly when taken visiting people, but people who wished to visit Habbibal, to enter any house in which he lived, were always definitely suspect in Hannibal’s mind. He was ready at all risks to both bark and bite if he considered necessary.
I am fascinated since when the black and tan terrier has been domesticated. For it is originally a working dog whose reputation as a ratter was popular over a hundred and fifty years ago. The name ‘Manchester Terrier’ was first used in 1890s, owing to a number of them usually found in North West England in towns near Manchester where the cotton industry was. More importantly, it gained famous reputation – or notorious some would say- from the Rat Pit in 19th century.
One thing for sure, Hannibal is an extraordinary dog.
Tuppence Beresford (TB)’s interviews Gwenda (G):
TB: ‘It was someone called mary Jordan I was asking about. Beatrice [her cleaner] said you knew about her.’
G: ‘Not really – I just heard her name mentioned once or twice, but it was ages ago. Lovely golden hair she had, my grandmother said. German she was – one of those Frowlines as they were called. Looked after children – a kind of nurse. Had been with a naval family somewhere. That was up in Scotland, I think. And afterwards she came down here. Went to a family called Parks – or Perkins. She used to have one day off a week, you know, and go to London, and that’s where she used to take things, whatever they were.
TB: ‘What sort of things?’
G: ‘ I don’t know – nobody ever said much. Things she’d stolen, I expect.’
TB: ‘Was she discovered stealing?’
G; ‘On, no, I don’t think so. They were beginning to suspect, but she got ill and died before that.’
TB: ‘What did she die of? Did she die down here? I suppose she went to hospital?’
G; ‘ No – I don’t think there were any hospitals to go to then. Wasn’t any Welfare in those days. Somebody told me it was some silly mistake the cook made. Brought foxglove leaves into the house by mistake for spinach – or for lettuce, perhaps. No, I think that was someone else. Someone told me it was a deadly nightshade but I don’t believe that for a moment, because I mean, everyone knows about deadly nightshade, don’t they, and anyway that’s berries. Well, I think this was foxglove leaves brought in from the garden by mistake. Foxglove is Digoxo or some name like Digit – something that sounds like fingers. It’s got something very deadly in it – the doctor came and he did what he could, but I think it was too late.’
TB: ‘Where there many people in the house when it happened?’
G; ‘Oh, there was quite a lot I should think – ys, because there were always people staying, so I’ve heard, and children, you know, and weekenders and a nursery maid and a governess, I think, and parties……’
Conversations between Thomas Beresford and Colonel Atkinson:
A: ‘Well, I expect you’ve read about it or heard about it. The Cardington Scandal. You know, came after that other thing- the what-you-call- ‘em letters- and the Emlyn Johnson submarine business.’
TB: ‘Oh, I seem to remember something vaguely.’
A: ‘Well, it wasn’t actually submarine business, but that’s what called attention to the whole thing. And there were those letters, you see. Gave the whole show away politically. Yes. Letters. If they’d been able to get hold of them it would to several people who at the time were the most highly trusted people in the government. Astonishing how these things happen, isn’t it? You know! The traitors in one’s midst, always highly trusted, always splendid fellows, always the last people to be suspected…..’