Unfinished Portrait

Rebecca Rouillard, the winner of Mslexia’s Novel Competition 2017, writes her first novel about her childhood as a white girl in South Africa. ‘Who’s going to read it?’ she thought, believing there would be little market for it. Her winning novel, however, is her attempt for another one; a story of a brother and sister living in a lighthouse – their parents absent.

The theme of childhood is an intriguing one; yet grappling with minutiae details authors are required to  thread their way of presenting them as a fiction. Rouillard may have a point; a number of debut novels is semi-autobiographical.  Their scenes and settings derive from either personal traumas or reflections; reminiscences or deep-seated memories.

unfinishedportrait_agathachristieMeet and Celia J. Larraby. One is a woman on a crossroads in her life and the other is a portrait artist before he lost his hands in the Great War. Both are on holiday – for respective reasons. Their encounter trigger sharing a night together, although far from the inclination to enjoy the pleasure of the flesh between them.

Mary Westmacott is not a name muttered in the highbrow circles of literature. Her first book, Giant’s Bread, comes out four years earlier in 1930; the number of the copies sold are likely to have been modest despite the good reviews. By the same token, her second novel about a thirty-nine-year-old protagonist with a sense of an ending would have drawn little fanfare in its wake; what with the unrivalled success Murder on the Orient Express . It might have been a much more exciting tale than a limbless man listening to a rumbling  childhood stories from an opposite sex with low self efficacy.

What goes on without a bang could actually generate a louder noise. Only a handful people are willing to say the other name of Westmacott towards the thinly-disguised story on the state of mind of a household name whom eleven days of disappearance has been engulfed in mystery. Still an enigma, Agatha Christie neither explains nor clarify the rumours surrounding her breakdown until her last breath.

Unfinished Portrait opens with a Foreword. Sometime after meeting Celia Larraby writes a letter to Mary. It’s accompanied by a manuscript; his take on Celia’s story. Would his bulk of words, being judged as poor in terms of writing techniques, be possible to ‘see the light of day’? Larraby seems to trust Mary’s  judgements on the matter – should she wish to alter some parts so it would be fit for publication.

A fan of Freud’s psychoanalysis theory, Christie has deployed the pyschoanalyst’s The Ego and the Id – Sigmund Freud essay– Das ich un das Es in German- in her depicting her characters and particularly in her analyses of the perpetrators. In writing under her pseudo name she also has applied the same principles;  Celia is the Id – the unconscious thoughts and J.Larraby the Ego – the preconscious that blends the unconscious and the conscious. Consequently, Mary becomes the super-ego. In her hands the edited version of the Id and the Ego are conjured.

As many would have been aware, Freud’s theory is flawed due to the extreme difficulty to gain an exact understanding on the significance between the Id or the Ego. Which one that  is more in determining people’s behaviour?

Christie’s unwavering support to the three-tiered of human’s mind nevertheless is apparent; in the book she’s positioned Mary as an agent and a listener whilst Larraby is a mere messenger to the supposedly true account of events. As a narrator he’s felt the pulling of a string  in a balancing act between his cognitive realisation about his subject and his drive to give Celia a fair representation.

Having given each of them a respective role, Christie allows herself to detach from either Mary, Larraby or Celia. As a result, their voices are distinct. Mary can neither be Celia nor can Larraby know everything about Celia. But he has sufficient details about her. Moreover, what does it matter if Celia only exists in his imagination?

Christie’s approach isn’t unheard of; her blurring the lines and her ‘splitting’ herself in the characters make the seemingly an ordinary unrequited love tale have layers of subplots. On the one hand, explanations are due on her part in order to stop the speculations and on the other she must spare some very personal details that known to her and for her only.

  It’s an odd question, when you come to think of it, the things we choose to remember. For choice there must be, make it as unconscious as you like. Think back yourself- take any year of your childhood. You will remember perhaps five-six incidents. They weren’t important, probably; why have you remembered them out of those three hundred and sixty-five days? Some of them didn’t even mean much to you at the time. And yet, somehow, they’ve persisted…. 

The above excerpt of Larraby’s words to Mary sounds whimsical. Bearing in mind he isn’t soundly equipped as a writer, his somewhat rambling phrases might be justifiable. Fortunately there’s Mary – a good friend?- who would not just bin the manuscript right away; the fact that Louillard has had an insight before sending out her first novel to an agent.

Perusing the book can be likened to a meal made in a slow cooker. Christie as a cook seems to have thrown in the ingredients from the depth of her memories and in the meantime lets its gradual pace mature in the hours that require. As a reader, however, the slothful process of ploughing through to reach the end can be unattractive. After the high notes on Vernon Deyre in Giant’s Bread, J. Larraby plays no encore in Westmacott’s repertoire.

Whether Larraby’s visceral emotions and his poorly constructed narratives are deliberate, Christie has chosen her way to release her version of events through Celia’s confidence in a stranger. For Larraby has never seen her again after the night; the key fact that might score in Mary’s bringing it forward.

Be that as it may, the care in the aspects of a novel is ostensible. Christie ensures that Larraby’s viewpoints are properly challenged by Celia’s admissions concerning the battle with faults in herself. If anything, the book is soul-searching; there’s a touch of raw honesty in her pondering over her part in the failure of her marriage and as far as her mother’s dominance over her are concerned.

Be it unfinished, it’s a portrait after all. Whatever details that have been omitted  underline Christie’s determination to take control of her privacy.

Last but not least, Louillard might wish to reconsider submitting her first novel; just as Winnie M. Lie’s Dark Chapter has done. No rush.


Absent In The Spring

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Year of Publication: 1944

Motive for Murder: None


Tell Abu Hamid, November 1936. Joan Scudamore has missed her train connection to Stanboul. Being stuck in a remote rest house, she is faced with unprecedented circumstances which delays her return to London.


1944’s the US book jacket ofFarrar and Rinehart NY.

Two days turn four; the wadi flood has rendered the rail tracks impassable. Breathing the healing air of the Syrian desert, she finds herself rejuvenated in the serene surroundings. Her mind begins to recollect the past events; the words of an old school friend she has bumped into at Baghdad are playing reels of reminiscences in her head.  To her astonishment subconscious thoughts surge forward, which lead to her asking herself questions she has never done before.

Did she a devoted wife to Rodney, a dedicated mother to Averil, Tony and Barbara and a good person she had believed?



From you I have been absent in the spring

When proud-piep April, dressed in all his trim,

Hath put a spirit of youth in everything

That heavy Saturn laughed and leapt with him

                                                                                                            -Sonnet 98

As Mary Westmacott, Christie cherishes her departure from crime novels. Her fascination about self and the complexity of human mind are the two passions she’s been able to explore under the pseudo name.

For twenty years her other identity is scarcely recognised – even by her ardent fans. For twenty years the six so-called romance books has gained modest successes. Her observation about class and love and changing times in society are woven into the dynamics in self by nurture and through distinctive experience.

Absent In The Spring is the third book published during the War.  She finished it in three days straight, of which it has given her such immense pleasure in its process. The manuscript then went to print as it was – as she wished.

In this long monologue of a country lawyer’s wife Christie puts aside her usual style of storytelling. Joan’s self dialogues during her five days’ wait in the lovely warm November sun hardly scratch the surface with the afore-mentioned Shakespeare’s Sonnet.

When Blanche Haggard recognises her school friend at the girls’ boarding school St. Anne’s, her cry ‘holy Moses, it’s Joan!’ is genuine. Off all places; thousands of miles away from the good old England is a face she hasn’t seen for fifteen years. On the other hand, Joan has noticed the girl she once adored first, but has chosen to study her instead.

In portraying the two contrasting personalities – Blanche the carefree, Joan the obliging- through exchanges and remarks, Christie is outlining the ‘picture’ of her protagonist. On the one hand, Joan’s civil responses is the opposite to Blanche’s careless comments about Rodney ‘having a roving eye’ and Barbara ‘too young to be married’ in which Blanche’s insinuating that the young woman did so to get away from home. On the other hand, in spite of Joan’s feeling offended to the other,  Blanche’s words set in motion the train of thoughts which persist to continue as they part the next day.

In the subsequent chapters Christie invites her readers to ‘splash some colours’ to Joan. Her mind wandering might be rather unexciting for the first half of the story. Nonetheless, as her seemingly rose-tinted life begins to reveal some cracks, the random collections begin to make sense.  Did Rodney miss her? Or was he happy to see her go away? Did Barbara want her mother to come to Baghdad to help her convalesce?

Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell

   Of different flow’rs in odor and in hue

  Could make me any summer’s story to tell,

          Or from their proud  lap pluck them where they grew


Joan Scudamore lays yellow chrysanthemums on Leslie Rodston’s grave. They  means neglected love or sorrow. The Victorian language of flowers are used in the story to convey the truth of a matter.   

Joan’s torrents of flashbacks take an unexpected turn, just as a sonnet alters after the eighth line. In the accidental company of an Indian servant whom serves her meals and drinks, his simple take on life makes her rethink her self image. Their limited exchange of words expresses a gentle phase of change in her through him; her perceived ideas on how to live a life becomes reconstructed. She questions whether leading a busy life actually an antidote to happiness.

Blanche and the Indian man are like pistons that runs the engine; more than minor characters. Then the advice of Miss Gilbey, the headteacher of St. Anne’s, when she left school, runs in her head: ‘think of others, my dear and not too much of yourself.’

The moment Joan admits the flaws in her judgements; the decisions she’s made as to what’s best for her family, another crack – much bigger than the previous ones- emerge: Rodney’s nonchalant attitude over the years and her marriage that has gone amiss. For quite sometime. As she turns her focus in the aftermath of Rodney’s breakdown, she sees her life differently.

 Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white

Nor praise the deep vermillion in the rose,

They were but sweet, but figures of delight,

    Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.


Rodney Scudamore is spotted by his wife wearing red rhododendrons on his lapel – the spring flowering species- in the churchyard.  An interesting substitute to ‘the deep vermillion in rose’ in the sonnet, for rhododendron means ‘rose’ and ‘tree’ in ancient Greek  

In a twist for which Christie has been famous, her clever use of the sonnet for her euphemism to a late-flowering affection is apparent. Joan has worked out herself and declares defeat.

Thus, this is not a story of a woman having an epiphany in her solitude. This is a story of a spectator to an unconsummated love, born from the shared interest in which Joan has no part.  The last proud-pied April comes before the devastating May that marks the other woman’s passing.

Yet it seemed it winter still, and,

You away,

As with your shadow I with these did play

Alas, Joan is the Saturn; the winter in Near Eastern that is ‘moving’ towards England. Yet she carries the shadow of the love little did she realise flourish for years under her very eye.

P.S. If any displeasure can be highlighted is the fact that the Baghdad Railway was completed in 1940. Thus, there couldn’t be any trains running beyond Mosul in 1936. Also, Tell Abu Hamid is a small-populated town in the district of ash-Sharqiyah in Egypt (in the eastern side of Jordan valley) and not in Syria as suggested.

Notes On Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case

Rating: 5 out of 5

Year of Publication: 1975

Motive for Murder: Revenge


Reunion at the Styles – now it’s a guest house run by the Rutrells. After another war, Arthur Hastings and Hercule Poirot come back to the former home of the Cavendishes for a summer. To Hasting’s surprise his youngest daughter Judith is present; the fresh graduate works for Dr John Franklin whom conducts medical experiments  on the poisonous Calabar beans. He stays with his wife Barbara on Sir William Boyd Carrington’s recommendation. The baronet knows Colonel Rutrell and has occupied a room while his nearby country home Knatton is being refurbished.

When Hastings settles down, Poirot reveals his mission: not for old time’s sake – that’s for sure. He tells the other five murder cases: none of them is related to one another. Nonetheless, the murderer is in the Styles – one of the guests.


David Suchet and Hug Fraser on the adaptation of Curtain – the final in 13th series.

Poirot has been watching him; no sooner did he learn that the cunning criminal would also spend the Summer there than he checked himself in and invited his sidekick. For old time’s sake- of course.

‘This, Hastings, will be my last case. It will be,too, my most interesting case – and my most interesting criminal. For in X we have a technique superb, magnificent, that arouses admiration in spite of oneself.’

The stake is high because the killer’s alibi is watertight. There’s no shred of evidence to tie him with a murder, but the mind’s game the killer has played to each person who is then sentenced for their crimes. More importantly, not only does Poirot have to think one step ahead, but he also has to keep an eye on his sidekick. And maybe, to take a life.


In my beginning is my end, in my end is my beginning. The engraved words on T.S. Eliot’s tomb at St. Mary’s Church in East Choker, Somerset sums up about the book: in Styles  Poirot and Hastings’s friendship commences and in Styles their adventure end. They come a full circle.

Styles is  crumbling. As Hastings recalls Summer 1916, Mary Cavendish is a distant memory but the murder of Emily Inglethorp.

Apparently Christie wrote the book during the War. The uncertain time and the death of his son-in-law might have had a significant influence to her that she might have died before concluding about her famous foreign detective. Hence her omission about the War in the book, her subtle but bitter expressions about old age and her inventing a monster in a serial killer that would never stand in the court to face justice.


Shirburn Castle in Watlington, Oxfordshire, UK. Built in 1377, it’s now a country house for fictitious Styles Court.

In Curtain, both Poirot and Hastings are vulnerable. The sleuth is now an infirm and a wheelchair-bound man whilst his companion a widower. Judith’s presence amplifies his thoughts of his late wife and increases his sense of protection towards his daughter at the same time.

Christie makes clear that Curtain is distinguished to her first book, although they are related in some ways. Daisy Luttrell – an efficient B&B manager but has a sharp tongue-  might jog readers’ mind to Evelyn Howard’s commanding manner. Sir William Carrington has a number of traits of John Cavendish and the bird enthusiast Stephen Norton in John’s brother Lawrence. John Franklin, serious and being preoccupied with his work, can be an equal to Alfred Inglethorp whilst Franklin’s countenance resembles Dr Bauerstein. As for Judith Hastings, she may be likened to Cynthia Murdock – Mrs. Inglethorp’s ward. Both women are committed and passionate about their professions.

Hence it was inevitable to read Curtain without revisiting the former home of the Cavendishes. The contrast between a thirty-year-old Hastings, a wounded officer on a month’s leave and a grey-haired, much older man is stark. But still the same narrator who guides readers to see a chain of reactions unfolding.

If in the first crime book Hastings is merely an observer hovering round Poirot and Inspector Japp, in Curtain Christie puts him in a tight place. So tight that Poirot must insist on the other’s drinking his unsavoury cocoa drink.


Also known as Calabar beans, it is native of Nigeria. Its use as an ‘ordeal poison’ among African tribes means to determine a person’s innocence

Furthermore, if Strychnine was catapulted to fame in 1920, in Curtain Physostigma Venenosum is chosen. Christie’s fascinating knowledge to poisons is well known, although it’s the nature of Barbara Franklin’s demise that is far more interesting in the plot. Even for an avid reader it will catch them off guard.

As Poirot has remarked, the killer is a most interesting criminal. Just as Jacko Argyll, the perpetrator doesn’t do it themselves.

For Christie has challenged readers from the onset to detect anything untoward in the words, intonation and timing in some suspects, including Hastings’s. A sentence whispered here or a response there built up over a period of time deliver a corresponding impact to a stab to the lungs. Here is a malicious slayer who understands that neither a slander nor a hearsay make an evidence in court. At the very least such will only be considered to help judge the character of a witness.

The accidental shooting of Mrs. Luttrell by her husband sees the killer’s testing the water. What did the killer do to raise George Luttrell’s anger? Dissatisfied, the slayer continues with Plan B.  It fails, but only to Poirot he can see that next time it will succeed.

‘Come, Hastings, you are not as stupid as you like to pretend. You have studied those cases I gave you to read. You may not know who X is, but you know X’s technique for committing a crime.’

Christie’s habit of throwing off scents with red-herring subplots seems scarce in Curtain.  She invents Elizabeth Cole (see more on The Most Fascinating Character) as a reassurance to Poirot’s deductions. For she’s the only one who has a connection to one of the cases and more importantly has known X.

Halfway, the elimination process might be achieved as to whodunit. None perhaps hardly prepares about the stupefying ending. For Christie puts forward the quest between morality and conscience in the course of justice; a notion about a thing should be done, not the right thing to be.

Last but not least, it’s worth looking at Christie’s contemplations on the issue of euthanasia (see Clues). The discussion which contrasts moral and courage, legality against necessity is one of her greatest’s dialogue I have ever seen. I wish she knew that forty-two years later the matter is still relevant.

Curtain is simply Christie’s finest masterpiece, of which was published in the last summer before she died.

At last, it’s the end of my reviewing all Agatha Christie’s crime novels. It’s long overdue, but a much satisfying process. Had I rushed to share my thoughts right after I had finished my reading, I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate it.

Finally, I would advise readers to postpone perusing Curtain until they are acquainted well with a number of her renowned crime novels.

The Twists:

-Elizabeth Cole lies about her surname

-Judith Hastings is in love with John Franklin

-Arthur Hastings inadvertently kills Barbara Franklin

-Hercule Poirot can actually walk round and is not as ill as he looks

The Most Fascinating Character: Elizabeth Cole

‘My name is Lichfield,’ says Elizabeth Cole to Arthur Hastings. He describes her as ‘ a woman of between thirty and forty, slightly haggard, with a clear-cut profile and really beautiful eyes. There was about her an air of reserve, more –of suspicion.’

Cole is her mother’s surname. She has adopted it in the aftermath of his father’s demise. Matthew Lichfield is the male equal to the larger-than-life character Mrs. Boynton (see Appointment With Death).


Helen Baxendale as E.Cole in the adaptation of Curtain in 2013

A bully, Mr. Litchfield is nevertheless rich.  Like Mrs. Boynton he imprisons his grown-up daughters to serve him.

He dies from a blunt force trauma in his skull, delivered by Elizabeth’s elder sister Margaret. She has finished him with a single blow at the back of his head.  Then she confesses that she did it so that her sisters could be freed from the golden cage.

Elizabeth has been acquainted with the Luttrells; George and Daisy are her longstanding friends. So they welcome her at the Styles and tell not anyone a single word about her true identity. To Hastings Elizabeth remarks about the colonel and his vinegar-tongued wife: ‘he’s rather a dear and she’s nicer than you’d think.’

It’s not clear whether Poirot has been informed about Elizabeth prior to his stay. Yet he reckons that X would stay. Moreover, X also knows the Franklins and the Luttrells.

Elizabeth is seen to spend time with Stephen Norton often. They get closer, as both are single. He’s her family’s friend, too. What she says about Norton: ‘he’s very nice –rather shy- just a little stupid, perhaps. He’s always been rather delicate. He’s lived with his mother – rather a peevish, stupid woman. She bossed him a good deal, I think. She died a few years ago. He’s keen on birds and flowers and things like that. He’s a very kind person – and he’s the sort of person who sees a lot.’ Does she like him?

In spite of her looking reserved, she’s studied people a great deal. Hastings listens to her and her observation about the suspects’ characters are precise.

Cast of Characters:

Guests at the Styles:

-Major Allerton

-Curtiss (Poirot’s manservant)

-Nurse Craven (Mrs. Franklin’s nurse)


Philip Glenister as Boyd Carrington in 2013’s adaptation on ITV

-Miss Elizabeth Cole (an old friend of the Luttrells)

-The Franklins ( John and Barbara)

-Judith Hastings

-Stephen Norton

-Sir William Boyd Carrington


-The Luttrells (Colonel George and his spouse Daisy)

-George (Poirot’s longstanding valet)


A.Conversation between Sir William Boyd Carrington (BC) and Barbara Franklin (BF):

BC: ‘You’ve not changed much since you were seventeen, Babs. Do you remember that garden house of yours and the bird bath and the coconuts?’

BC to Arthur Hastings: ‘Barbara and I are old playmates.’

BF: ‘Old playmates!’

BC: ‘Oh, I’m not denying that you’re over fifteen years younger than I am. But I played with you as a tiny tot when I was a young man. Gave you pick-a-backs, my dear. And then later I came home to find you a beautiful young lady – juts on the point of making your debut in the world – and I did my share by taking you out on the golf links and teaching you to play golf. Do you remember?’

BF: ‘Oh, Bill, do you think I’d forget?’

BF to AH: ‘My people used to live in this part of this world. And Bill used to come and stay with his old uncle, Sir Everard, at Knatton.’

BC: ‘And what a mausoleum it was – and is. Sometimes I despair of getting the place liveable. ‘

BF: ‘Oh, Bill, it could be made marvellous – quite marvellous!’

BC: ‘Yes, Babs, but the trouble is I’ve got no ideas. Baths and some really comfortable chairs – that’s all I can think of. It needs a woman.’

BF: ‘I’ve told you I’ll come and help. I mean it. Really.’

B.On the subject of euthanasia among Arthur Hastings (AH), Boyd Carrington, Judith Hastings (JH) and Stephen Norton (SN)

JH: ‘I mean that anyone who’s weak – in pain and ill- hasn’t got the strength to make a decision – they can’t. It must be done for them. It’s the duty of someone who loves them to take the decision.’

AH: ‘Duty?’

JH: ‘Yes, duty. Someone whose mind is clear and who will take the responsibility.’

BC: ‘And end up in the dock charged with murder?’

JH: ‘Not necessarily. Anyway, if you love someone, you would take the risk.’

SN: ‘But look here, Judith, what you’re suggesting is simply a terrific responsibility to take.’

JH: ‘I don’t think it is. People are too afraid of responsibility. They’ll take responsibility where a dog is concerned – why not with a human being?’

SN: ‘Well – it’s rather different, isn’t it?’

JH: ‘Yes, it’s more important.’

SN (murmuring): ‘You take my breath away.’

BC: ‘So you’d take the risk, would you?’

JH: ‘I think so. I’m not afraid of taking risks.’

BC: ‘It wouldn’t do, you know.You can’t have people here, there, everywhere, taking the law into their own hands, deciding matters of life and death.’

SN: ‘Actually, you know Boyd Carrington, most people wouldn’t have the nerve to take the responsibility.’

SN (smiling faintly) to JH: ‘Don’t believe you would if it came to the point.’

JH: ‘One can’t be sure, of course. I think I should.’

SN: ‘Not unless you had an axe of your own to grind.’

JH: ‘That just shows you don’t understand at all. If I had a- a personal motive, I couldn’t do anything. Don’t you see? It’s got to be absolutely impersonal. You could only take the responsibility of – of ending a life if you were quite sure of your motive. It must be absolutely selfless.’

SN: ‘All the same you wouldn’t do it.’

JH: ‘I would. To begin with I don’t hold life as sacred as people do. Unfit lives, useless lives – they should be got out of the way. There’s so much mess about. Only people who can make a decent contribution to the community ought to be allowed to live. The others ought to be put painlessly away.’

JH to BC: ‘You agree with me, don’t you?’

BC: ‘In principle, yes. Only the worthwhile should survive.’

JH: ‘Wouldn’t you take the law into your own hands if it was necessary?’

BC: ‘Perhaps. I don’t know…’

SN: ‘A lot of people would agree with you in theory. But practice is a different matter.’

JH: ‘That’s not logical.’

SN: ‘Of course it’s not. It’s really a question of courage. One just hasn’t got the guts, to put it vulgary. Frankly, you know Judith, you’d be just the same yourself. You wouldn’t have the courage when it came to it.’

JH: ‘Don’t you think so?’

SN: ‘I’m sure of it.’

BC: ‘I think you’re wrong, Norton. I think Judith has any amount of courage. Fortunately the issue doesn’t present itself.’

Notes on The Moving Finger

Rate: 4 out of five

Year of Publication: 1943

Motive for Murder: Greed



In a sleepy Lymstock, nothing untoward happened. Peace was the norm in the idyllic village: no wars, no bombs.  Until the first murder occurred.  The Symmingtons’ housemaid body was found cold in the downstairs’ cupboard with a blunt force trauma in her head. A week beforehand, Mona Symmington committe suicide.


Chilham village in Kent, the filming location for fictitious Lymstock in 2006’s adaptation of Miss Marple series.


Anonymous hate letters had circulated, as the poison pen  spread scare among the villagers. Despite their being defiant about the letters, fears and anxiety increased being a target of abhorrent accusations.

In the meantime, Megan Hunter saw something on the day her mother died. A young girl of twenty, she was often seen wandering round the village either in her bike or on foot. Aimee Griffith disliked her idleness, whereas some had sympathy to the girl whose mother paid little attention to her.

She saw something she wasn’t supposed to see. As she realised what would happen next, it was nobody but her who could prevent it become materialised. Could she trust herself to take a high risk to save her life and others?



In today’s social media age, the tales of fake news and rampant finger pointing are ubiquitous; the internet trolls that spewed poisonous comments then propelled an issue to a much larger scale and onto a different level.

The devastating impact of hoaxes had also left imprints in Christie’s world; Elinor Carlisle receiving spiteful letters after her engagement in Sad Cypress(1940) and Dr. Charles Odfield asking for Poirot’s help to clear his name due to rumours about his poisoning his late wife in the Labours of Hercules (1947). If vile letters were exist in those books to flavour to a plot, in The Moving Finger the issue became the epitome of an abuse in words.

From the onset Christie put forward the various effects of libels for their respective recipients. To the brother and sister Jerry and Joanna Burton, such was an expression of alienation to foreigners that strengthens the villagers’ watchful glance towards them and their quiet sighing to their cosmopolitan behaviour. To Dick Symmington the solicitor, his reputation, having only opened his practice for a few years, was at stake.

Supposed the book was a blank painting canvass,  Christie then had morphed it into a Jackson Pollock ; the dialogues were the outpourings of characters’ mind while delivering blatant criticism on society.

I have noticed that the books Christie had written during the War may carry the homogenous spirit of being bold and fearless about life. They expose the worst in human’s nature that leave pins and needles sensations in their wake.


London Children during The Blitz 1940


As far as I am concerned, Christie stayed put in London during the War. Her decision was made mainly because of her daughter, Rosalind Hick, whose first husband Hubert de Burgh Pritchard was on an active service an died in 1944.

Come what may, the book touched nothing about the War, although the apparent distress which engulfed Lymstock might have mirrored the uncertainty of the War. Clearly Christie banned any mention of it, but turned the sky of ostensibly picture-perfect setting of the countryside into a cloud of vultures circling an area where a carcass of crime is identifiable and the smell of it inevitable.

Enter the young village doctor Owen Griffith and the orphan Megan Hunter. Together with the Burtons Christie spun the plot around the four of them. Jerry seemed to be an extrovert version of Colonel Hastings; Joanna’s carefree attitude paralleled to Giselda Clement (Murder At The Vicarage) and Dr. Griffith might have been Dr. James Sheppard – only younger and more handsome.

As circumstances altered and characters changed, attention turned into Aimee Griffith, Owen’s older sister.  A semblance to Catherine Sheppard, Aimee was atypical spinster character in other books (see more on The Most Fascinating Character). Likewise, Mona Symmington could be likened to Mrs Ferrars (see Notes On The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).  By the same token, Mr. Ackroyd’s housekeeper Miss Russel had the same traits to Mrs Cane de Althorp  – their detecting ‘bad smell’ in people.

The plot saw Christie’s  marvelling at putting the right dose between feeding excitement and inducing sinister sentiments. Clues dropped in unexpected situations obscured in an ambiguous tone. Whilst it could be quite confusing at times, her sticking to Jerry’s viewpoint held together the loose ends.

As expected, the subplots bore comparable details in her previous books. Nonetheless,  it takes a skilful writer with tricks up her sleeves to pinch a detail and combine it with others to create an entirely different setting. Halfway  I felt I could guess whodunit although I realised that the theatrical touch in it would only make sense as I turned to the last chapter.

Miss Marple remained behind the screen until the last five thousand words.  Meanwhile, some readers might have asked themselves whether the Burtons had been a one-off Tommy and Tuppence. Only in the end it explained the police’s involving Jerry in the investigation in spite of the fact he was a suspect.

To conclude, it is a Miss Marple book that deserves more recognition among Christie’s fans. It’s more than the craft of the plot, but a study of point of views: have we seen an issue in a bigger picture?


The Twists:

-Dick Symmington donated his old typewriter to the Women’s Institute

-Megan Hunter’s father was imprisoned for blackmail

-Aimee Griffith wrote the anonymous letter to Elsie Holland

– Joanna Burton received a hate letter that was intended for Emily Barton

– Mrs Dane Calthrop roped in help from an old friend: Miss Marple

– Emily Barton’s prayer book with ripped pages used by the Poison Pen in different anonymous letters was found in the Symmingtons’ downstairs cupboards


Cast of Characters:

– Mrs. Baker (Beatrice’s mum; Beatrice a housemaid at Little Furze)

– The Burtons (Joanna and Jerry)

– The Dane Calthrops (Reverend Caleb and his wife)

– Elsie Holland (a governess at the Symmingtons)

– Emily Barton (whose house Little Furze was rented out to the Burtons)

– Florence (Miss Barton’s former maid)

– Miss Ginch (Dick Symmington’s secretary in the law office)

– Inspector Graves (Scotland Yard)

– The Griffiths (Owen the village doctor and Aimee who ran girl’s guide)

– Marcus Kent (Jerry Burton’s doctor)

– Megan Hunter (Mona Symmington’s daughter from her first marriage)

– Superintendent Nash

– Partridge (the cook at Little Furze)

– Sergeant Perkins

– Mr Pye (the proud owner of Prior’s Lodge who has a penchant for antiques)

– The Symmingtons (Dick the lawyer and his wife Mona)


The Most Fascinating Character: Aimee Griffith

Christie’s crime novels have a number of spinsters in them; from Miss Marple herself to Kirsten Lindstrom (Ordeal by Innocence); from Cecilia Williams (Five Little Pigs) to Nurse Jessie Hopkins (Sad Cypress).

Aimee Griffith is not just another one. In her most renowned book, Christie establishes Dr. Shepepard’s sister’s reputation being a chief gossip in King’s Abbot right from the beginning. On the contrary,  she introduces Aimee as just one of Jerry Burton’s encounters with the villagers without a hint of importance to her role. Her presence is more often due to her access to a typewriter the police have believed being used to type the poisonous letters.


Jessica Hynes as Aimee Griffith in 2006’s Miss Marple series


She disapproves  Megan Hunter; her being the daughter of ‘the wrong un’ To Jerry Burton, Aimee is rather overwhelming. ‘Too much an Amazon for me,’ heremarks to Joanna once.

Unlike other fore-mentioned spinster characters, Aimee is good looking. She is comfortable in her own skin and bold, although she seems to be on guard with words and tends to keep her ideas to herself.

In her absence still there are echoes of her. She argues with Jerry about gender equality with  apparent franknesss. ‘It is incredible to you that women should want a career. It was incredible to my parents. I was anxious to study for a doctor. They would not hear of paying the fees. But they paid them readily for Owen. Yet I should have made a better doctor than my brother.’

The bombshell is then dropped when the police arrest Aimee for sending a warning letter to Elsie Holland. Worse, Aimee has denied having done it. Meanwhile, the police has realised she has held back information about two other suspects.

Things look pessimistic for her. Only Miss Marple who can help squash her charge with a huge favour from Megan.



Jerry Burton (JB) and Aimee Griffith (AG) (after the inquest on the death of Mona Symmington):

AG; ‘ I was terribly sorry for Dick Symmington its all having to come put as it did at the inquest. It was awful for him.’

JB: ‘But surely you heard him say that there was not a word of truth in that letter – that he was quite sure of that?’

AG: ‘Of course he said so. Quite right. A man’s got to stick up for his wife. Dick would. You see, I’ve known Dick Symmington a long time.’

JB: ‘Really? I understood from your brother that he only bought this practice a few years ago.’

AG: ‘Oh yes, but Dick Symmington used to come and stay in our part of the world up north. I’ve known him for years. I know Dick very well…. He’s a proud man, and very reserved. But he’s the sort of man who could be very jealous.’

JB: ‘That would explain why Mrs. Symmington was afraid to show him or tell him about the letter. She was afraid that, being a jealous man, he might not believe her denials.’

AG: ‘Good Lord. DO you think any woman would go and swallow a lot of cyaniade potassium for an accusation that wasn’t true?’

JB: ‘The coroner seemed to think it was possible. Your brother, too…’

AG: ‘Men are all alike. All for preserving the decencies. But you don’t catch me believing that stuff. If an innocent woman get some foul anonymous letter, she laughs and chucks it away. That’s what I….would do.’

JB: ‘I see. So you’ve had one, too.’


Dick Symmington(DS) and Megan Hunter(MH):

MH: ‘I would like to speak to you, please. Alone.’

DS: ‘Well, Megan, what is it? What do you want?’

MH: ‘I want some money.’

DS: ‘Couldn’t you have waited until to-morrow morning? What’s the matter, do you think your allowance is inadequate?’

MH: ‘I want a good deal of money.’

DS: ‘You will come of age in a few months’ time. Then the money left you by your grandmother will be turned over to you by the public trustee.’

MH: ‘ You don’t understand. I want money from you. Nobody’s ever talked to me much about my father. They’ve not wanted me to know about him. But I do know he went to prison and I know why. It was for blackmail!

‘Well, I am his daughter. And perhaps I take after him. Anyway, I am asking you to give me money because… if you don’t….’

Christie, England’s First Female Serial Killer and a Wren

The book, published in 1973, brings attention about her a century later.

In 1873 Mary Ann Cotton is sent to the gallows in Durham Jail. She’s been charged with the murder of a seven-year-old boy, her step son. Nevertheless, the forty-one-year-old nursemaid maintains her innocence until her last breath. Arthur Appleton’s book brings attention about her a century later.

She’s hanged as traces of Arsenic has been found in her victim. What’s more, evidence mounts of her having done the same to at least 15 others. In fact, the number could be 21 in total.

Suddenly West Auckland is shaken by a serial killer in its midst: a seemingly harmless miner’s daughter who allegedly has ended life her four husbands, her lovers, her mother, her step children, and her own ones. Although she’s more murderous than Jack the Ripper, little is known about her outside North East of England.

Fast forward to 19th February 1941. In Tenby Kathleen Skin can see the blazes from Swansea after the bombardments. Over three days the Luftwaffe has dropped 800 explosives and 35,000 incendiaries have fallen on the city bringing about raging fires, destroying its ancient centres, killing and injuring hundreds of people.

Kathleen Skin in her Wren uniform

Infuriated, she realises her days as a nanny is over. She takes a day off work to undertake health tests in order to join the Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRNS). She passes them, but not until in the very last one she finds out she’s failed due to her weight. A few pounds more are all she needed on the scale to meet the minimum six stones requirement. That day she comes back dejected, preparing food for the baby’s dinner in a sombre mood.

These women, a Britain’s first female serial killer and eventually a ‘Wren’ heroine, live in different periods, but they mirror some female characters in Christie’s books. Did she ever hear about Mary Ann, I wonder? Did she ever meet one in the Women’s Forces, her source of inspiration for Lynn Marchmont (see Notes on Taken by The Flood)?

A women serial killer is highlighted in By The Pricking of My Thumbs (1968), which features the duo Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. A painting Tuppence has inherited from her late aunt Ada then arises Tuppence’s curiosity. For later she notices something amiss on it and so her adventure begins.

Furthermore, the authoress’s fascination about a cold-blooded murderess’s state of mind gives way to the rise of them, notably in Lord Edgware Dies (1933), Peril At End House (1932) and After The Funeral (1953). Although the murderess Tuppence helps unearth doesn’t pay her dues, her crimes ring the same bell as Mary Ann’s.

Skin’s true account of life during the last War is re-told in The Girls Who Went to War. Before she can realise her dream to be a Wren, she has a stint in the Land Army. Unlike Marchmont, Skin isn’t posted abroad. The dream to see the world subsides after the VE Day, as Skin is back to ‘Civvy Street’ and retrains as a teacher. Likewise, Marchmont is demobbed and home in Spring 1946 after two and a half years ago spent overseas.

Mary Ann fits in Christie’s adage ‘anyone can be a murderer.’ Nobody at that time could believe such crimes had been carried out in return of insurance money. Moreover is Mary Ann’s manipulation to men, a trait that would remind avid readers to a famous King’s Counsel Mr. Mayherne being played at in The Witness of Prosecution.

Life after the Service will never be the same for both Skin and Marchmont, albeit there is a delayed wedding to consider. For Marchmont, the untimely death of a super rich uncle Gordon Cloade affect her and her cousin/fiancée Rowley; their being drifted apart as Marchmont is drawn to the attractive David Hunter, with whom she feels the connection while sharing their wartime experiences. As for Skin, the strange behaviour of her fiancée Arnold concerns her a lot.

Arsenic poisoning is not much mentioned in Christie’s books, for she prefers the uses of poisonous plants, such as Foxgloves and Strychnines and drugs, ie. trinitrines, prussic acid and Bromides. Nevertheless, Mary Ann goes Scot free many times with a common method of administering Arsenic in tea. The deaths of those children in her care are referred as ‘gastric fever,’ which bear similar symptoms. A doctor who releases the death certificates to some children is already suspicious and the allegations are proven following the exhumation of the bodies.

Christie captures well Marchmont’s mixed feelings about adjusting to civilian life, but she might be over the top having written in the book: ‘….wonderful to be out of uniform, to be able to get into a tweed skirt and a jumper – even if the moths had been rather too industrious during the war years!’

For the WRNS navy blue uniform is considered at the top of the fashion. Designed by Edward Molyneux, its straight streamlined jacket is envied compared to the belted waists and pleated pockets of the ATS’s and WAAF’s. Not to mention the Wrens are allowed to wear a pair of black stockings, a privilege indeed to show their feminine side. And therefore Marchmont should have been very proud wearing her uniform and the much-admired tricorne hat.

Christie might have heard the WRNS recruitment is the hardest of the three Women’s Forces and regarded as the classiest. Perhaps for those reasons she has chosen Marchmont to be a Wren. Thumbs up to Christie who has brought up the least-mentioned symbol until recent of the Women’s Forces whose contributions to the War effort are significant. In this post-war novel she also reflects about her loss, having received a War Office Telegram for her daughter’s first husband.

Fiction and real life can be inexplicably interwoven, but at the same time they can be very contrasting. Skin might not be as lucky in love as Marchmont, but she sees the world after all by taking a job as a teacher in Malaysia. In the next few decades she lives in Asia and Africa.

Meanwhile, Mary Ann Cotton brings the secrets of the true extent of her crimes into her grave while in Christie’s world Felicie Bault (The Fourth Man, see Notes on The Hound of Death) is the nearest character I can think of. I begin to doubt whether Mrs. Lancaster is as ‘daring’ as Mary Ann nonetheless.

She’s dead and she’s rotten
Lying in bed with her eyes wide open
Sing? Sing? What song should I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up in string
Where? Where? She’s up in the air
And now their selling puddings for a penny pair

Readers, would you turn Mary Ann’s life into a novel?


‘The Hand That Smoothed The Pillow’ about the Victorian killer’s life was presented by her descendant Theresa Musgrove. Duncan Barrett (co-author with Nuala Calvi) discussed about their newly-launched book The Girls Who Went to War. The two events were part of Finchley Literary Festival from 20th to 24th May 2015.

A Postcard From London

A postcard from London

For You

To say ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank You’

And share the joy

Of receiving something

Other than bills

I hope the thrill of it

Will bring a smile

And fill your heart with peace

For the better year

London Postcard

This is one of the postcards sent to family and friends this year. What Christie’s Fan’s followers will receive are a different design nevertheless. It’s a surprise! 

Should you be interested in receiving a postcard, please kindly send me an email on knowingchristie@yahoo.com. Alternatively a text message to +447775923550 (on whatsapp and viber).

Address supplied will be treated as confidential and in return I will expect the same.

I will understand if some of you might feel ‘strange’ on the above request, but the intention is genuine.

…….Initially :)

‘Christie In A Year’ officially ends yesterday. Seventy-five books reviewed, eleven titles remain (eight books and three plays). Six of Mary Westmacott’s, too.

Last night I heard Mrs. Boyle (The Mousetrap) shout in my head. ‘You’ve got to find who murdered me!’ She was a grumpy old woman, complaining at every opportunity to Molly Ralston about the guest house.

The authoress's bronze statue was unveiled on 18th November 2012. At the heart of West End, it is situated between Cranborn Street and Great Newport Street, a stone throw away from Leicester Square tube station.

The authoress’s bronze statue was unveiled on 18th November 2012. At the heart of West End, it is situated between Cranborn Street and Great Newport Street, a stone throw away from Leicester Square tube station.

Then Jane Marple appeared while Sherlock Holmes was dying on the box (the third episode of Sherlock Third Series ‘His Last Vow.’). ‘…All my eye and Betty Martin,’ she said to Edward Rossiter and Charmian Stroud (Strange Jest in Miss Marple’s Final Cases). The elderly’s blue eyes twinkled in response to the others’ frowning in awe.

I shook my head as I was brushing my teeth, for the image of Captain Hastings had conjured up in the mirror in front of me. He had just been awake in a chair in which he had slept at. He had meant to wait for Major Allerton, but fell asleep instead. ‘Who was it who wrote, “The darkest day, lived till tomorrow, will have passed away?” And how true it is….’Reflecting, he said those words to himself and felt relieved that he did not kill the major. Hastings did not look at me, for he then got up and washed. It was as if he was telling me: ‘Mind, I do not know yet the killer in this house.’ Curtain, Poirot’s Last Case is the culminating point of the Belgian’s career.

This morning I woke up feeling just like Hasting’s: cramped and uncomfortable. For Parker Pyne has not been mentioned and Verdict and Go Back For Murder are the two plays known little. Not to mention Christie’s other identity as as Mary Westmacott.

And what news of the day than her face cream that helped restore the lustre of 3,000 year old ivory carvings?

Readers, I must continue. Please bear with me.