The Rose and the Yew Tree

Hugh Norreys’s quiet life is interrupted when a foreign woman insists on seeing him. She ignores his dismay and manages to persuade him to come with her.

Lying on his deathbed, John Gabriel is a shadow to his own self. But the past has cast a long shadow over him and Norreys since their last encounter in Zagrade. Since Norreys saw him and Isabella Charteris together.

cof

My tatty copy. ISBN:0-440-17503-8

When the book was published in January 1948, London hardly recovered from the wounds of the War. The cold winds of harsh winter were still blowing hard, her inhabitants impoverished. Meanwhile, Clement Attle’s government had set the nationalisation and the welfare state  in motion and officiated the formation of the National Health Service (NHS) – Early Years in the summNotes On Peril At End Houseer.

 

Over two years earlier Labour won its greatest majority in history. The watershed election held on 5th July 1945 heralded windswept changes in British politics.

Upon this backdrop Westmacott plotted a tempestuous period in the weeks leading to the polling day in a Conservative stronghold. In St. Loo, no less.

Arthur Hastings in Peril At End House describes the imaginary setting at the beginning of the novel as ‘no seaside town in the south of England is, I think, as attractive as St. Loo. It is well named the Queen of Watering Places and reminds one forcibly of the Riviera…’ However, in Westmacott’s world there are no dead bodies. Instead Hugh Norreys the narrator commences with his recollections seeing a dying man; a man of whom he’s banished from memory.

littlegiddingchurch
Little Gidding church in Little Gidding, Huntingdonshire, UK. T.S. Eliot visited in 1936 and named the last of his Four Quartets after the village. Image by Simon Kershaw.

 

We die with the dying;

See, they depart, and we go with them.

We are born with the dead; See, they return, and bring us  with them.

 

The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree are of equal duration.

A people without history 

Is not redeemed from time; for history is a pattern

Of timeless moments. So while the light fails

On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel

History is now and England.

   Westmacott based her title on a line in  Eliot’s concluding part of his The Four Quartets. The church in which the poet sat in reflection after a long walk is a home of an Anglican community established by Nicholas Ferrar in 17th century. The religious history of it might have inspired Eliot  and yet it was the comfort the poem had offered that might have given Westmacott a suitable plot.

    Thus ‘we die with the dying…’ depicts a scene in which Gabriel tells Norreys as to what happened in Zagrade. The urgency of a closure before a soul leaves the world is the highlight and the subsequent lines ‘ we are born with the dead….’  are translated in  Norreys’ journey to ponder over an eventful summer in a Cornish town.

Smokes were still palpable in English towns and cities when Little Gidding was printed in 1942; desperation and demise were palpable, if not compelling in the aftermath of Luftwaffe bombings. Westmacott understood this very well;  the droning sounds of the bombers and their dull thudding noises before hitting the ground had remained in her. So had Eliot. So had their generation.

Westmacott’s take on the poem sees Norreys lives to tell the paths he, Gabriel and Isabella have trodden.

‘We all start out as the central figure of our own story. Later we wonder, doubt, get confused. So it has been with me. First it was my story. Then I thought it was Jennifer and I together – Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Iseult. And then, in my darkness and disillusionment, Isabella sailed across my vision like the moon on a dark night. She became the central theme of the embroidery, and I – I was the cross-stitch background – no more. No more, but also no less, for without the drab background, the pattern will not stand out.

    Now, again, the pattern has shifted. This is not my story, not Isabella’s story. It is the story of John Gabriel.

    The story ends here, where I am beginning it. It ends with John Gabriel. But it also begins here.’

It fascinated me as to why such solemn a mood of the poem would befit for a romance.  Initially, this oddity was confusing. The War was over; shouldn’t she moved on?  I put the book aside and reminded myself that I had belonged to a generation that  experienced nothing like the war years. Then I let the story settle in my head and the lines from Little Gidding filled the gap.

It took me longer than I should to discern the beautiful metaphors with vivid imageries of England in four seasons and at the same time to attempt to understand more Eliot’s religious references in them. In particular his  change of tone – a far cry from The Wasteland- about the War and the suffering. It resulted in my learning to living in a moment; that one’s perception of  longevity or brevity is unique. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

 

TUatlee5
A carricature in Daily Mirror on 5th June 1945 picturing a wounded VE-day soldier clutching a paper ‘Victory and Peace in Europe’ 

  As her nom-de-plume, Agatha Christie took the liberty of flexing her interest in postwar politics. On the one hand the clash of classes is discussed; a man with no title and social standing being contrasted to a young educated girl brought up in a castle.  On the other is political gossips and local rumours and their ruminations that in Norreys’ elaborations represent the shifting mood of a nation still clutching at straws.

 

 

The distinct voice in Norreys makes him an active participant that J. Larraby in Unfinished Portrait shares only little. Despite both are disabled people and being positioned as an outsider, Larraby is  reluctant and somewhat unreliable.

What’s more, Norreys isn’t as shy as he would like to think about himself and being confined in a wheelchair can be his biggest advantage. He mingles well with the figures in the traditional community which perceives his presence as an intrusion to their privacy. People come up to him to discuss and to confide. He listens to them.

For Gabriel ‘the fire’ it’s the opposite. He’s ruthless and ambitious; his plain features are compensated by his public speaking skills. His record is also incontestable: a crippled war hero and a recipient of Victoria Cross. But the community is divided when a scandal occurs to the (controversial) Conservative candidate days before the casting of the votes.

“That’s one reason why I’m optimistic about Gabriel,’ he [Captain Carslake] said. “He gets on with women.”  

  “But not with Lady St. Loo?”

  Lady St. Loo, Carslake said was being very good about it…She acknowledged quite frankly that she was old fashioned. But she was whole-heartedly behind whatever the [Conservative] Party thought unnecessarily.

  “After all,” said Carslake sadly, “times have changed. We used to have gentlemen in politics. Precious few of them now. I wish this chap was a gentleman, but he isn’t, and there it is. If you can’t have a gentleman, I suppose a hero is the next best thing.”

  Which, I [Hugh Norreys] remarked to Teresa after he had left, was practically an epigram.

As for the orphan beauty Isabella, Westmacott deploys her signature of inverse proposition for her inimitable characters. Her demure behaviour defies her intelligent mind and her dreamy countenance belies her matter-of-fact attitude. These traits surprise and enthrals Norreys; just as the sweet Louise Ledner (Murder in Mesopotamia), Lynn Marchmont (Taken at the Flood) and Sophia Leonides (Crooked House) would do. Nevertheless, these women do not always carry a wise head on their shoulders; each of them has taken some poor decisions that bear damning consequences to the people they care.

 “You think Isabella is a kind of female Fortinbras?” I [Norreys] asked smiling. Teresa smiled too.

   “Not so warlike. But direct of purpose and entirely single-minded. She would never ask herself, ‘why am I like I am? What do I really feel?’ She knows what she feels and she is what she is.” Teresa added softly, “and she will do – what she has to do.”

  “You mean she is fatalistic?”

  “No. But for her I do not think there are ever alternatives. She will never see two possible courses of action- only one. And she will never think of retracing her steps, she will always go on. There’s no backward way for the Isabellas…’

Last but not least, it would be interesting to find out  whether Eliot read the book and his thoughts about it. What made him choose to compar the yew-tree, an evergreen conifer that is native to England to rose, a non-native plant immortalised in the War of the Roses?  Or would a rose have been simply a symbol of beauty, transience and love whilst the long-lived tree a symbol of death and life?

Did they matter? Even if he didn’t peruse the little known book, I’d say Christie was a fan of his.

Finally, I’m bowing out with a paragraph in Three Things About Elsie:

I honestly believe that every person we meet alters us in some way. From the smallest encounter, to a life-long friendship, we are always changed by those who pass through our lives, even if they only walk with us for a short time

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Touch of Irak and Gertrude Bell

From The Gate of Shiraz in Parker Pyne Investigates (1934) to her archaeological memoir Come, Tell Me How You Live (1946), to Death Comes to An End (1944), there is ample evidence of Agatha Christie’s being besotted with the Middle East.

Christie takes a photograph of an Assyrian ivory statue in Nimrud, Irak.

Intrepid like-minded English women before her have crossed the Sahara and spent nights in the wilderness of the desert, but none turns the wonders of the ancient cultures of Assyrians and Egyptians into a crime fiction. In her memoir, Christie’s account on her journeys accompanying her husband captures the lives of the people and their customs with great fondness and respect. And if she’d had to choose her favourite place, it would have been Irak. For Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) and They Came to Baghdad (1951) become the everlasting memories of her fascination towards the country. In the later book she dedicates it to ‘friends in Irak and Syria.’  What’s more, in Murder Is Announced (1953),  she names the priest’s dog Tiglath Phileser after an Assyrian King. The ‘wise’ and ‘clever’ canine creature helps Miss Marple work out as to the execution-style murder has been carried out in the house of Letitia Blacklock. If there was another woman who would match her  passion, it would be Gertrude Bell. BBC 4’s Book of the Week: Queen of the Desert, which highlights her major role in the formation of the Republic of Irak, unearths an indomitable but intriguing personae ahead of her time. Bell is the choreographer behind the installation of Faisal I of Irak  in 1921. Her  work for the Arab Bureau during the First World War I gathering intelligence for the British Imperial government leads to her post as the Oriental Secretary under  Sir Percy Cox. In the meantime, she reaches out to Faisal. Her excellence in Arabic and Farsi, as well as her wide networking with the tribal leaders and the chieftains, are indispensable to the success of British campaign after the Ottoman Empire relinquishes its power in Irak and Arabia in 1917. At that time Irak is an uncharted territory; for thousands years Arabs have recognised it merely as ‘al iraaq,’ a vast land consists of three former-Ottoman provinces namely Mosul, Basra and Baghdad. In Greek it is called ‘Mesopotamia: ‘between the rivers’ (the Tigris and the Euphrates). Unbeknown to her, there was a secret pact between Britain and France to divide authorities in the region rich in oil but ruled largely by tribal laws. Her plan for Faisal as the Pan-Arab king has been thwarted. Much as she believes such pact is an ill-informed decision, Bell does not step back. She then manages to cajole Faisal into claiming a kingdom in a region he has no bearings and root.   Bell’s involvement in the Near East starts in Tehran. She stays with her stepmother’s sister, the wife of British Minister Frank Lascelles, in her attempt to find a suitor. She falls in love with one there, but Hugh Bell disagrees to their union in marriage. Her heart bleeds when she receives a telegram about his death, eight months after she was back in London. Despite her heartache,  Persian Pictures (1894) is published.  The Desert and the Sown (1907)  follows, enriched by three-hundred photographs she has taken about people, landscape and agriculture of different regions of Syria and Palestine. The Thousand and One Churches (1909), co-authored with William Mitchell Ramsay,is considered as a seminal archaeological work about the first Christian settlement in Turkey. Contrary to Bell, Christie’s interest towards the Middle East is a slow-burning one. Clara Miller brings her twenty-year old daughter Agatha to Cairo for her formal ‘coming-out’ into the society in the winter 1910. Unfortunately, the young Agatha is more into dances and parties, being oblivious to any archaeological artefacts and history. She does not warm up to Sphinx and the pyramids. In her biography (1976) she writes: “Mother tried to broaden my mind by taking me to the Egyptian Museum, and also suggested we should go up the Nile to see the glories of Luxor. I protested passionately with tears in my eyes the wonders of antiquity were the last thing I cared to see.” In 1915, the then-newlywed Mrs. Christie might not have heard about Bell.Nor would she have come across the three books the other had written. Little did Christie realise thirteen years later she would board the Orient Express from London to Baghdad like Bell 36 years before. Her last-minute decision to have cancelled the Caribbean trip had a huge impact to  her life and writing. Due to her leg injury, her journey back to London is accompanied by a twenty-six year old junior archaeologist Max Mallowan. She returns to Irak as his wife in 1931, a year before the country declares itself as an independent kingdom. Mrs. Mallowan brings her  typewriter and the sounds of the clanking keys of her typing is part of life in a dig.   When Murder in Mesopotamia is out in print,Bell has long gone.She dies in the early hours in her Baghdad home two days before her 58th birthday ; in the same summer The Murder of Roger Ackroyd has catapulted the shy Mrs. Christie into the limelight. Christie’s portrayal of the atmosphere in the imaginary Tell Yamrijah  would have thrilled Bell a lot. Just as Christie, Bell is familiar and passionate about the hard work being carried out during an excavation. It would have tickled her that the plot suggests a former spy has been among the members of the team. Had they met, both women would have had a lot to share and discuss. On the one hand, Bell could have told Christie about the flowering Daffodils in her Baghdad’s garden and her friendship with King Faisal. On the other hand,Christie would have intrigued Bell with the usage of lotion cream to recover an intricate Assyrian ivory small statue. When I wrote Notes on They Came to Baghdad during the marathon reading in 2013, little did it occur to me that Irak has left an indelible mark in Christie. A plan to sabotage an international peace conference held in the capital is well under way and it will be unstoppable unless the evidence of it being presented in time. Why  a peace conference, I wondered. The answer perhaps is not a clear-cut one.It seems to me the book challenge the views regarding the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, seen as more phenomenal  and much more popular than the discovery of Ur. Instead of the Valley of the Kings Christie suggests Baghdad:the cradle of civilisation. And therefore peace ought to be where everything begins. What would have Bell had to say  had she been alive to read Christie’s books? First, she might have recalled the depiction of the British agent Carmichael in They Came… among a league of men in  her circle. Next, she might have seen resemblances of her boss Sir Peter Cox in Corbie, and maybe a little of herself in Victoria Jones. Both Bell and Christie might have something in common after all. They have encounters in connection to the Armenian genocide . In Iraq and Gertrude Bell’s The Arab’s MesopotamiaPaul J. Rich quotes Bell catching a glimpse of the horrors  in Damascus. For she has witnessed the Kurds, being ordered by  the Turks, rounding up the Armenians and taking them to different places. Later they are killed.  In the memoir,Christie recollects  her visit to the Yezidi Sheikh of the Sinjar, whom gives shelter to hundreds of Armenians fleeing from the prosecution. Also, the story of the amiable Aristide, the Armenian driver whose taxi is hired for an  arduous journey from Beirut to North Syria.  At the age of seven Aristide is thrown into a deep pit with his family and other Armenian families. Whilst his father, mother, two brothers and sisters are burnt alive, his life is spared. Found and saved by  the Anaizah Arabs, he is then brought up as one of them.  This 15th September will mark 125 years of Christie’s birth. Queen of the Desert starring Nicole Kidman will also be in the cinemas in the UK this autumn. Whilst Christie has been a household name for over eighty years, Bell’s has only  came up in the last twenty years. Alas, the first woman who receives a First in Modern History from Oxford gets her dues.

Notes On Parker Pyne Investigates

Rating: 3.5 out of five

Year of Publication: 1934

Motive for Crimes:

blackmail (Have You Got Everything You Want?)

identity (The Gate of Baghdad)

Plot:

Parker Pyne offers a solution for unhappy people.

There are twelve problems:

First, a wife who suspects her husband to have fancied a younger woman must know the truth.

Second, a lonely Major who requires to do something he has been good at in a civilian life.

Third, a woman comes with a gambling debt paid by pawning a diamond.

Fourth, a husband who is reluctant to grant the divorce.

Fifth, a forty-eight-year-old city clerk whose life has little spark in it asks Mr. Pyne for a bit of adventure.

Sixth, a wealthy widow who wants to know how to spend her money. But little does she prepare for the subsequent events she will encounter.

Seventh, a young woman who travels with her dashing husband approaches Mr. Pyne on board of the Simplon Express. For her jewel case has gone missing. Does Mr. Pyne believe her story?

Opened in 1897, the famous hotel in Istanbul has survived the First World War. It is where Edward Jeffries comes clean to Mr. Pyne about the missing jewelry case of his wife.

Eighth, a fellow traveller has been murdered at night on the road to Baghdad. Two theories emerge on the cause of death: stabbed at the back of his head or hit by a sandbag. The latter is suggested by the murderer.

Ninth, in Shiraz while taking a stroll Mr. Parker drops his card at a house, the abode of an eccentric Lady Esther Carr. What makes Mr. Parker want to see her?

Tenth, in Petra the daughter of an American magnate has lost her pearl ear ring worth £40,000. Among the suspects are the people who have been in the same tour; an archaeologist, a Member of Parliament, a military officer and Mr. Pyne.

Eleventh, a woman who complains to everyone round her has been found dead in her room on a ship during the Nile tour. As all passengers are being questioned, who has got the strongest motive to kill her?

Lastly, a curious circumstance arising following the kidnap of an eighteen-year-old lad on holiday with her mother in Delphi. Mr. Pyne ought to clear his name.

 

Highlights:

 

 

His advertisement is the thirties’ equal of nowadays ‘No Win No Fee.’ Lawyers are not required.

What appeals from the twelve cases in the book is some ordinary clients Mr. Pyne has agreed to take. The characters are a world apart from Murder in The Orient Express (see the Notes), which is published in the same year. The shadow of the Belgian sleuth might be behind the other man’s being less popular and less known among the avid fans.

It is interesting that both men have a number of similar traits. Perhaps not in their countenance, but their enjoying travelling and are well connected. Also,  they have Miss Lemon as a super secretary. Although Mr. Pyne  is as methodical as Poirot, the former does not seem to mention the work of his grey cells. Instead he plans either a splash of drama or  a confidence trick in order to solve his cases.

Personally Mr. Pyne is more like Harley Quinn. There is a touch of mystery in Mr. Pyne. He describes himself to Major Wilbraham (The Case of the Discontented Soldier) saying: ‘you see, for thirty-five years of my life I have engaged in the compiling of statistics in a government office. Now I have retired and it has occurred to me to use the experience I have gained in a novel fashion…’ Be that as it may, those sentences are as good as Alan Turing’s saying during his interview to a Manchester Detective Inspector that he had worked in Bletchley radio factory during the War.

More about Mr. Pyne’s past career is while he is having dinner with the British Consul in Shiraz. The latter’s story about Lady Esther Carr has aroused Mr. Pyne’s curiosity. For he happens to know Lady Esther’s father, the former Home Secretary, under whom he used to work. In what capacity is anyone’s guess. His identity, however, is a sly humour of Christie’s which often appears in other books.

Persepolis in Shiraz

In creating a retired civil servant (ex-MI-6?) to do sleuthing jobs, it is apparent that Christie wishes to take a break from Poirot. For Mr. Pyne is a pleasant man; he might be quiet but approachable. If M. Poirot works alone,  Mr. Pyne prefers to have two actors in his employ. He commissions Mrs. Oliver to stage a ‘saving a damsel in distress’ plot for Major Wilbraham. Unfortunately, one scheme fails to deliver in The Case of the Discontented Husband, partly due to Madeleine de Sara, one of the actors.

Another evidence is in the book title itself, which was on the press ten years after Poirot Investigates (1924). The last of Mr. Pyne’s case, Problem At Pollensa Bay (1935), appears first on the UK magazine (see the Notes). He  seems to travels  to more countries than Poirot and have more sensible sartorial choice than   the other in hot climate.

Christie’s attempt to’ defy’ the almighty a little man with an egg-shaped head is in vain. Her frustration is channelled through Mrs. Oliver whom also grows a dislike towards her Swedish detective Mr. Finn. It does not help either that the amiable Mr. Pyne has received fewer nods from the avid fans. Did Christie discontinue Mr. Pyne due to the lukewarm reception? Or, did her publisher ask her to ‘kill’ the nice English man (supposing Mr. Pyne is English)?

Whilst the book has not gained he same glory as Murder On The Orient Express, the flow and the drama in Mr. Pyne’s cases are nearly as good as in the other book. For both books are teemed with Christie’s  travelling to the Far East. Moreover is her having captured the happenings in  the society in the post-war years. Her portrayals of arrivistes – the ‘in-betweeners’ in today’s lingo- and moral hypocrites are amusing and clever.  The Pearl of Price is the exemplary example of Christie’s criticism towards them.

And therefore I suggest two ways to judge the book: either put it away if the expectations are for a thriller because Christie is not very good at writing one or go finish it if a test of ingenuity and the exploration of human psyche appeals more. Besides, her short stories work better than her novels.

 

The Twists:

– Claude Lutrell refuses Mrs. Crackington’s gift (The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife)

-Major Wilbraham and Freda Clegg would not find the ivory cache (The Case of the Discontented Soldier)

– ‘Jules’ only slips the diamond ring off Lady Dorthemeir’s finger, not replacing it (The Case of the Distressed Lady)

-Reginald Wade wants to marry Miss Madeleine de Sara (The Case of the Discontented Husband)

– The city clerk is sent on a trip to Geneva to the trick a mafia gang (The Case of the City Clerk)

– Amelia Rymer wishes to remain as Hannah Woodhouse (The Case of The Rich Woman)

-Edward Jeffries has an accomplice on board the train (Have You Got Everything You Want?)

– Colonel Smethurst is an old Etonian like Samuel Long, a mole (The Gate of Baghdad)

The replica of the Ishtar Gate of Babylon at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany.

– Muriel King, a lady maid, believes that she will be blamed for the deadly accident occurred (The House of Shiraz)

-Caleb Blundell’s business has gone belly up (The Pearl of Price)

-Sir George Grayle does not poison his wife (Death On The Nile)

– Mr. Thompson is Parker Pyne (The Oracle at Delphi)

 

The Most Fascinating Character: Mrs. Amelia Rymer

‘I’m not going to let money come between me and my happiness’

She is extremely rich and lonely. Furthermore, she is bored; having yearned for company since her husband Abner died.When he was alive they put a Midas’s touch to every investment they had made.

As her frustration grows she decides to turn up at Mr. Parker’s office. ‘If you are any good at all you’ll tell me how to spend my money!’

Mr. Parker understands who she is and how different she is from the other clients. To my mind, the life of Amelia Rymer seems to reflect the life of her creator.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd catapulted Christie into the limelight. So when she was reported missing a few months later, the search mission became the police biggest operation in the year of 1926. Having checked in as Mrs. Neele the Swan Hotel in Harrogate, Christie had no idea whatsoever about her making the headlines on the paper. Nor did she expect a great crowd at the King’s Cross as she arrived at the station with Colonel Archibald Christie.

But Mrs. Rymer has no desire to disappear but a bit of interest in her life, possibly the replacement of Mr Rymer. Just as Christie, Mrs. Rymer is angry to have learnt that Mr. Parker might have deceived her. From a wealthy middle-aged woman to a simple farm woman Hannah Woodhouse, Mrs. Rymer tries to fight back at first but then accepts her new identity after some time. What triggers the change of heart is the presence of a new farm labour Joe.

Suppposing a banjo player in the hotel did not recognise Christie, would she remain incognito for a longer time? What difference would it have made? To this day her eleven days disappearance is still shrouded in mystery, having stated in her biography of having ad no recollections on it.

Agatha’s being a ‘Gone Girl’ during her disappearance. How has Amelia Rymer transformed during her year’s missing?

When a year has gone Mr. Parker comes to see ‘Hannah’ in the farm. ‘Come, Mrs. Rymer are you an unhappy woman now?’ he asks. She admits ‘No. I’m not unhappy.’ But what would she do with her money, of which has been presided over by Mr. Pyne during her ‘absence’?

If Christie jumped on the Simplon-Orient and searched her happiness along the rail tracks for Istanbul, Mrs. Rymer only needs to stay in England.

Amelia and Agatha have found their happiness when it is least expected.

 

Cast of Characters:

Parker Pyne’s employees:

Miss Lemon (Mr. Parker’s secretary)

The Actors:

Claude Luttrell

Madeleine de Sara

The novelist: Mrs. Oliver

 

1. The Case of Middle-Aged Wife

The client: Mrs. Mary Crackington

George Crackington (Mary’s husband)

 

2. The Case of Discontented Soldier

The client: Major Charlie Wilbraham

Freda Clegg

Mrs. Oliver (the novelist)

 

3. The Case of Distressed Lady

The client: Daphne St. John/Ernestine Richards

The Dortheimers (Lady and Sir Reuben)

Gerald St. John (Daphne’s husband)

 

4.  The Case of the Discontented Husband

The client: Reginald Wade

Irish Wade (Reginald’s wife)

Mrs. Massington (Irish’s friend)

 

5. The Case of The City Clerk

The client: Mr. Roberts

Lucas Bonnington

Maggie Sayers/Grand Duchess Olga

 

6. The Case of The Rich Woman

The client: Mrs. Abner Rymer/Hannah Moorhouse

The Gardners

Joe Welsh

 

7. Have you Got Everything You Want?

The client: Elsie Jeffries

Edward Jeffries (Elsie’s husband)

 

8. The Gate of Baghdad

The group leaving for Baghdad:

Hensley (Smethurst’s good friend)

Squadron Leader Lotus

Netta Pyrce

O’Rourke

Miss Pyrce (Netta’s aunt)

General Poli

Captain Smethurst

Flight Lieutenant Williamson

 

9. The House at Shiraz

The client: Lady Ester Carr

Herr Schlagal (the German pilot)

The English Consul in Shiraz

 

10. The Pearl of Price

The client: Carol Blundell (Caleb’s daughter)

Caleb P. Bundell (a rich American)

Dr. Carver (an archaeologist)

Sir Donald Marvel (Member of Parliament)

Colonel Dubosc (a career military officer on leave)

Jim Hurst

 

11. Death On The Nile

The client: Lady Ariadne Grayle

Basil West (Sir George’s secretary)

Miss Elsie McNaughton (Lady Grayle’s nurse)

Sir George Grayle (Lady Ariadne’s husband)

Pamela Grayle (Lady Grayle’s niece)

 

12. The Oracle at Delphi

The client: Mrs. Peters (the Junior’s mother)

Mr. Thompson (the hotel manager at Delphi)

Willard Peters Junior (Mrs. Willard’s son)

 

Clues:

Parker Pyne to Reginald Wade: (The Case of Discontented Husband)

‘You do not understand human nature, Mr. Wade. Still less do you understand feminine human nature. At the present moment you are, from the feminine point of view, merely a waste product. Nobody wants you. What use has a woman for something that no one wants? None whatever. But take another angle. Suppose your wife discovers that you are looking forward to regaining your freedom as much as she is?’

 

Parker Pyne to Mr. Roberts: (The of City Clerk)

‘You are carrying a cryptogram which reveals the secret hiding place of the crown jewels of Russia. You can understand, naturally, that Bolshevist agents will be alert to intercept you. If it is necessary of you to talk about yourself, I should recommended that you say you have come into money and are enjoying a little holiday abroad.’

 

Parker Pyne to the murderer: (The House of Shiraz)

‘Your ridiculous statement that Smethurst had been killed by bumping his head. O’Rourke put that idea into your head when we were standing talking in Damascus yesterday. You thought – how simple! You were the only doctor with us – whatever you said would be accepted. You’d got Loftus’s kit. You’d got his instruments. It was easy to select a neat little tool for your purpose. You lean over to speak to him and as you are speaking drive the little weapon home. You talk a minute or two. It is dark in the car. Who will suspect?’

The confession of the perpetrator (The Pearl of Price):

‘It was really sheer accident to start with. I was behind you [Mr. Parker] all morning and I came across it a moment before. She hadn’t noticed it. Nobody had. I picked it up and put it into my pocket, meaning to return it to her as soon as I caught her up. But I forgot.

And then, half-way up that climb I began to think. The jewel meant nothing to that fool of girl; her father would buy her another without noticing the cost. And it would mean a lot to me. The sale of that pearl would equip an expedition…’

Notes On The Mousetrap

Rating: four out of five

Year of Release: 25th November 1952

Motive for Murder: Revenge

Plot:

It is the first day Monkswell Manor opens its door for the guests. The newly-married Giles and Mollie Ralstons’ business venture is about to prove its worthwhile. Five guests are present amidst the heavy snow; four have booked their rooms in advance. The last guest, an Italian man, turns up after he abandons his car which has been stuck in the snowdrift. Nonetheless, he is not the last to come as a detective sergeant knocks the door later in the evening to investigate a murder case. Afterwards, the snow storm makes the road impassable.

The set of ‘The Mousetrap’ at St. Martin’s Theatre, London. Mrs. Boyle sits in an armchair while Miss Casewell is by the fire.

Mrs. Maureen Lyon was strangled in her home in Paddington, London, a day before. The main suspect is a man wearing a dark overcoat, light scarf and a soft felt hat. Police’s attention is drawn to the guest house as two people therein are linked to the death. What relates the demise of a middle-aged woman and a child abuse case at the Longridge Farm nearby?

The next day, a guest is found dead in the lounge after lunch.

Highlights:

Act I:      Scene 1 The Great Hall at Monkswell Manor. Late Afternoon

Scene 2  The same. The following day after lunch

Act II:    The same. Ten minutes later.

Time: the present

Eight people confined in a house- the Ralstons, five guests and a police man- strangers to one another, or so they thought. The plot deploys Christie’s often-quoted adage in her books: old sins have long shadows. Hence the motive of the crime: revenge. More importantly is not just one, but three targets. Two of them have been ‘done.’

Over ten years before Mrs. Lyon and her husband lived in the Longridge Farm fostering three children: James (little Jimmie), George and Katherine. They were abused under the farmers’ care and Jimmie died from starvation as a result. After being released and the Lyons were imprisoned, the other two were then separated; the girl was adopted and has been known to live abroad whilst George stayed in England and had another foster parent.

Years later the Lyons were released from jail. The husband has died already but the wife was not, not until she was tracked down and recently killed.

In ‘Tape-Measure Murder’ (Miss Marple’s Final Cases) the female sleuth must think of a clue that will put the murderer on the crime scene. Much to Inspector Slack’s astonishment, she suggests that the stabbing of Mrs. Spenlow is an ‘old-fashioned crime.’ The clue? A pin on Constable Palk’s top, the first person arrived to examine the body.

In the play an old habit known intimately only by another person gives away the murderer’s identity. Something which is rather difficult to realise by the audience, given its subtleness and other red-herrings that follow. All the same, the killings have been carried out owing to the circumstances of a tragic event occurred dated years beforehand.

The O’Neill children (from left): Terence, Dennis and Tom.

It is said that Christie was affected by Dennis O’Neill’s death in the hands of the Goughs whilst his two other brothers, Terence and Tom were miraculously survived.  In the reality, despite only spent six years in prison, the Goughs died naturally and Tom pinpoints the downside of foster care in A Place Called Hope. In Christie’s world, however, the dramatisation highlights the extent of the emotional scars for the siblings concerned and the survivor’s guilt; George in this case.

What interests me nevertheless is the mental health issue Christie seemed to bring up: that George’s feeling as a failure to have protected his younger brother is left untreated.  Perhaps the possibility of it was not likely to be addressed by the Social Services. Moreover, he might have been told to forget, forgive and move on whereas his anger and frustration remain unresolved.

Who is ‘George’ in the play? Readers, that for you to seek the answer (and please do not spoil it in your comments). More significantly to my mind is Christie’s having addressed such a case in her power as a household name. Bearing in mind that she had the first-hand experience of grief for the loss of father at a tender age, I suppose this was the case dear to her heart.  In hindsight, she might have felt the desperation of Christopher Wren (see The Most Fascinating Character) about the passing of his mother.  In her biography the authoress writes that her father’s demise was the end of childhood, which only emphasises the impact on her.

As for the killer, his psychopath character makes him want to wipe off everyone in connection with the case. Hence his knowing of the whereabouts of the retired magistrate who matched him and his siblings with the Lyons and the young school teacher of whom Jimmie pled for help before his death.

When the curtain fell at St. Martin’s Theatre, I left West End with a lingering thought: what will happen to the murderer? Will he stand the trial and charged for his crime? Or will he be shut in a psychiatric ward on the grounds of ‘diminished responsibilities’?

It intrigues me that the play is the one which suggests openly about child abuse and the criticism towards foster system in the UK. For in her books Christie does not elaborate the future of the children who become orphans following the crime and most importantly about their mental health. Take the examples of the Christows’s children (see Notes On The Hollow), Carla Le Marchant (Five Little Pigs), Celia Ravenscroft (Elephants Can Remember) and the two-year-old Betty Sprot (N or M); they would all grow up without their parents. What will become of them? It is good to know that little Betty is adopted by Tuppence Beresford and Le Marchant has had a loving relative in Canada.   Nonetheless, Terence Christow is thirteen when his parents are dead and I can see the smart but insane George in the other child.  The chilling words of George’s no doubt in Act II rekindles my thought: ‘“I’ll kill them all when I’ve grown up.” That’s what I said to myself. Because grown-ups can do anything they like.’

Be that as it may, the unmasking of George takes more than resentment and pain. For there is also jealousy, an ungrateful old woman who criticises her host at every opportunity and an Army deserter who checks in under an assumed identity. Also, a wife who does not tell her past to her husband for her trying to forget all about it. And how about an ex-Army officer who lies about his presence? Not to forget the Italian, the unexpected guest.

On the whole, the longest-running play in London’s West End serves as a bitter reminder of a catalogue of child abuse still happening at present.

 

The Twists:

-Miss Casewell recognises her estranged brother’s habit of twirling his hair in a special way

– Mollie Ralston is the young teacher to whom Jimmie wrote before his death

 

Cast of Characters:

Guests at Monkswell Manor:

Sheila Sim as Mollie Ralston and her husband Richard Attenborough as Detective Sergeant Trotter when the play was opened in the Ambassador’s Theatre on 25th November 1952.

Mrs. Boyle (a retired magistrate)

Christopher Wren (a young architect)

Miss Casewell (English, who live abroad)

Major Metcalf (a retired army officer)

Mr. Paravicini (Italian, the unexpected guest)

Others:

The Ralston (Giles and Mollie, the proprietors of the guest house)

Detective Sergeant Trotter

 

The Most Fascinating Character: Christopher Wren

‘Call myself Christopher Wren? It just amused me. And then they used to laugh a t me at school and call me little Christopher Robin. Robin-Wren-association of ideas. It was hell being at school.’ He tells Mollie Ralston when they are alone in the lounge in Act II. Furthermore, he acknowledges of his being a deserter and just like the murderer, he was put in foster care following the passing of his mother.

He opens up to Mrs. Ralston shows a lonely personality that has behaved ‘silly’ to the eyes of other guests and Mollie’s husband. Mrs. Boyle sums him up as ‘a singularly ill-mannered and neurotic young man’ after his poor joke that she would have felt his hands on her throat. Giles wants him to be away from his wife for fear of Wren being the murderer.

His presence in Monkswell Manor might be his having been on the run since he left the Army. For what he has done, regardless the motive, is considered as a serious crime and must be prosecuted. It is highly likely that he has escaped from his captors so far -until when? What will become of him after Mrs. Boyle’s killer is revealed? Will Mrs. Ralston give Wren away to the authority?

It fascinates me that Wren was in the war. Did he enlist himself or was it part of the deal towards the crime of which he had been accused? Readers might recall Ian Mc Ewan’s Atonement and James Folliat in Dead Man’s Folly (see the Notes). In the latter book, the ‘bad son went to war to atone his sins and was reported to have been killed in action. Whereas Robbie Turner has agreed to serve in the Army after being falsely charged with the rape of a young girl, what actually is Wren’s circumstances (or whoever he is)?

At any rate his life story opens a window of another story of the shadows of the War.

 

Clues:

Act Two: conversation between the murderer (B) and a guest (A)

A: ‘Georgie, Georgie, you know me, don’t you? Don’t you remember the farm, Georgie? The animals, that fat old pig, and the day the bull chased us across the field. And the dogs. (She crosses to Left of the sofa table).

B: ‘Dogs?’

A: ‘Yes, Spot and Plain.’

B: ‘Kathy?’

A: ‘Yes, Kathy – you remember me now, don’t you?’

B: ‘Kathy, it is you. What are you doing here?’ (He rises and moves to Right of the sofa table).

A: ‘I came to England to find you. I didn’t recognize you until you twirled your hair the way you always used to do.’ (B twirls his hair) Yes, you always did it. Georgie, come with me. (Firmly) You’re coming with me.’

B: ‘Where are we going?’

A: (Gently, as if to a child)‘It’s all right, Georgie. I’m taking you somewhere where they will look after you, and see that you won’t do any more harm.’

(A exits up the stairs, leading B by the hand. C switches on the light, crosses to the stairs and looks up).

…….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.

Notes On Sparkling Cyanide

Rating: 4.3 out of five

Year of Publication: 1945

Motive for Murder: Wealth

Plot:

Two sparkling wine glasses; two deaths occur in the book. After Rosemary Barton, who’s next?

Iris Marle reflects a tragic event nearly a year ago; the death of her elder sister, the attractive and extrovert Rosemary Barton. She invited five people to come for her birthday dinner, during which all of a sudden her face became blue and convulsed after drinking the wine. Presently cyanide was found in her handbag and her death was deduced as a suicide case.

George Barton has received two strange letters stating that his late wife was murdered.  Casting his mind back to a night at The Luxembourg, he recalls seeing her body sprawl forward on the table – lifeless. Only an hour before she looked so lovely despite a little thin in the face after a bout of influenza. The suicide verdict was suggested owing to depression that might have occurred in the recovery.

If the letters were right, who would have murdered her?

He decides to recreate the scene by inviting the same people in the same restaurant. Little does he realise what awaits him after the light comes on.

 

Highlights:

What begins a story? An event or a viewpoint? A motive or a sentiment? A character or a group of people?

In the book, does it begin with a seventeen-year-old Irish’s remembrances? Or by the two letters, thought at first as a cruel joke, which trigger Barton’s idea of reconstruction of the incident?

Women’s dress in the forties. Rosemary Burton would have looked marvellous in one of the dresses. The simple lines have made a come back in the recent years.

I am inclined to choose the latter option.  The arrival of the first anonymous letter makes the widower enquire himself something whose answer he has actually known: why should Rosemary have killed herself? That concludes the long first chapter in which the phantom of Rosemary Barton starts to shape.

The plot, centred round the circumstances of Rosemary’s suicide, elaborates the extent of conformity among people. Oftentimes someone ought to agree what others in the group have accepted as the truth. In the event of Mrs. Barton’s demise, the evidences and the motive lean towards suicide. Although Irish and Barton smell a rat, they rather keep it to themselves. Not until the letters appear is the verdict contested.

On the one hand, Irish knew because six months afterwards she discovered a love letter her elder sister had written in the pocket of her gown. Clearly, not to her husband but a lover of whom Rosemary called him ‘Leopard.’ On the other, Barton understood her will to live and more importantly the realisation of a third person in the marriage.  Now, supposing he chose to ignore the letters and move on.

Here is a quiet pleasant man with means whose curiosity is driven by love and jealousy. When he explains about his plan to his old acquaintance, who is none other than Colonel Race, the colonel refuses to participate.  For something is bound to happen, much he has learnt at Mr. Shaitana’s dinner party (Cards On The Table). Will Barton accomplish what he wants to reveal?

While the victim is an unfaithful wife and ‘ornamental woman’, it is Lucilla Drake who steals the show (see The Most Fascinating Character). A stepsister to the Marle sisters’s father, she is a priest’s widow who has been invited by Barton to make home with him while looks after Irish. What is more, she is Irish’s only next of kin, which means that Drake will inherit the other’s immense wealth on her death. Such does not come into light until much later – at least to Colonel Race- as the turns of the events render Irish’s position to be the next murder target.

What is fascinating about the pot is its clarity in the second reading. Put aside the usual red herrings Christie has planted throughout, a number of beguiling remarks will emerge along with some scenes that are open to interpretations. At best, it makes the book is much more interesting than what the reviews have suggested without the presence of neither Monsieur Poirot nor Miss Marple to save the day.

For in Yellow Iris (see Notes On Problem At Pollensa Bay), a short story published in 1937, a distress phone call makes Poirot go immediately to a French restaurant where the American Barton Russel has booked a table to commemorate the fourth anniversary of his wife’s death. Just as Rosemary, Irish Russel dies from cyanide.  Her husband believes a foul play nevertheless and declares his intention to unmask the killer by recreating the scene. Is he right that Irish was poisoned? Meanwhile, the unexpected guest the Belgian comes to realise the real goal of the dinner.

Furthermore, it is a personal belief that the book was plotted and written around the same time as Five Little Pigs (1943). Rosemary’s personality seems to resemble Elsa Greer and Caroline Crale Irish Marle.  Just like Elsa, Rosemary falls for a married man, Stephen Farraday.  Moreover, both women are willing to ‘claim their prize’; Rosemary  tells Stephen days before the party that she would have come clean about them to her husband. Likewise, Elsa does not take ‘no’ for an answer from Amyas Crale, but overhears his saying to his wife that Elsa is just a muse – nothing more, nothing less.

Most importantly is the likeness of the murderers’ profiles in both novels.  Ruthless and domineering, they are incorrigible manipulators, masters in the art of deception and capable of persuading others to help them achieve.

Among a good many things in the book, I have not been able to understand Colonel Race’s role in the case. I am in the dark as to his contribution.  Looking back, in the three other books in which he is featured –The Man In The Brown Suit, Cards On The Table, Death On The Nile– I have realised that I faced the similar issue.  In spite of his being personally involved owing to George Barton and interviewing a reliable witness, his role can be substituted by any minor characters. Besides, I tend to think that his collaborator, the enigmatic Anthony Browne plays second fiddle brilliantly. He assists the somewhat ‘dazed’ Holmes by preventing another murder.  It does help that Race understands Browne’s background, although this needs clarification in the end due to the witness’s account which is in favour to Browne.

Lastly, this war-time era book fails to mention the dreadful and frightening occurrences at that time. Call it my lack of empathy as I come from a post-war generation, but the damning reality of the War does intrigue me. Or was it the publisher’s wish to have omitted terrible things for fear of bringing discomfort to readers? While I appreciate the obliteration of the War, it lingers at the back of my mind a nagging fact about air raids: what if the birthday party had to be cancelled in the last minute?

 

The Twists:

‘Moral: Every murderess was a nice girl once!’

Anthony Browne

 

–          Anthony Browne has met Victor Drake in prison under the name Tony Morelli

–          Ruth Lessing is in love with George Barton

–          Stephen Farraday is the ‘Leopard’

–          Betty Archdale hears Browne threatens Mrs. Barton for not mentioning his other name

–          Cyanide is slipped into Irish’s handbag in the powder room

–          The waiter at the Luxembourg  picks up Irish’s handbag on the floor during the cabaret show and mistakenly puts it onto George Barton’s seat

–          George Barton is not meant to be killed

–          Victor Drake never leaves England for Brazil

 

Cast of Characters:

Lady Alexandra Kidderminster (a.k.a. Sandra Farraday, married to Stephen)

Anthony Browne (Rosemary’s friend, who falls for Irish)

Betty Archdale (the ex-maid at the Bartons, who gives notice after Rosemary’s death)

Christine Shannon (a woman who sits next to the table of George’s party)

George Barton (Rosemary’s husband)

Giuseppe Bolsano (the head of waiters at the Luxembourg)

Colonel John Race (George’s long-standing acquaintance)

Lord and Lady Kidderminster (Sandra’s parents)

Irish Marle (Rosemary’s younger sister, George’s sister-in-law)

Chief Inspector Kemp (Colonel Race’s friend, who investigates the death)

Lucilla Drake (Irish’s distant aunt, Victor’s mother)

Mary Rees-Talbot (Colonel Race’s acquaintance, the current employer of Betty Archdale)

Rosemary Barton (nee Marle, Irish’s elder sister)

Ruth Lessing (George’s secretary)

Stephen Farraday (Sandra’s husband, Rosemary’s lover)

 

The Most Fascinating Character: Lucilla Drake

Motherhood comes late to her; she meets Reverend Caleb Drake when she is nearly forty. Their marriage lasts only for two years and she is left a widow with an infant son, Victor.

Susan Hampshire gives a star performance as Lucilla Drake in 2003’s novel adaptation into TV series

Since then he has become the apple of her eye. She is anxious about him at all times, of whom a source of grief and a constant financial drain. A touch of Michael Rogers (Endless Night), Victor in fact gives troubles to his mother despite being clever and charming. Nonetheless, whilst Michael Rogers‘s mother is fully aware of her son’s wickedness, the other woman believes that most people misunderstand Victor.

Interestingly, her much biased attitude to her only son does not make her like everyone. For she dislikes Ruth Lessing, the indispensable secretary who wishes to be the future Mrs. Barton. Drake watches the other’s movements and ensures Lessing would not take a step too far.

Personally Drake is a triumph of a character of Christie’s, given to a number of facets about her. Her seemingly clumsiness and her feeble mind mirror Gerda Christow (The Hollow). The tendency to deviate from the main subject during conversations bears similarities  to Caroline Armory, Sir Claude’s elder sister in Black Coffee.

It is up to readers to decide whether Drake is either empty-headed or a very perceptive woman. Generally she is a good judgment of people;  her observation to Lessing is a fine example. Furthermore, no sooner has she met Anthony Browne than she dislikes him. She seems to have gathered the fact that the man is in love with her charge and vice versa. If they are married then she will have lost the fortune. After all, in Christie’s books I never meet a fool for a reverend’s wife.

It surprises me a little, however, that she might not be a kind person. According to Betty Archdale, Drake gives her hard time of obtaining a reference after giving her notice. Drake points out to the maid the unkind remark made and that she often broke things in the house. I wonder if Drake realised the other’s cleverness, of whom also suspected something in the death of her mistress Rosemary?

In the end, Mrs. Drake draws attention to some weak points in the book. Supposing she has deceived everyone, convincing them that she is just a simple person. I wonder if she knows somehow that her son never boards on a ship heading for Sao Paulo. Perhaps she might not have recognised him in London streets, but did she ever see a stranger with a particular gesture only a mother understands? If ‘no’ for the these, did she recognise him in the restaurant where she dined with George Barton and four others?

 

Clues:

The two letters George Barton has received:

The first:

‘YOU THINK YOUR WIFE COMMITTED SUICIDE. SHE DIDN’T. SHE WAS KILLED.’

The second:

‘YOUR WIFE ROSEMARY DIDN’T KILL HERSELF. SHE WAS MURDERED.’

 

Conversations between Victor Drake (VD) and Ruth Lessing(RL):

VD: ‘You’ve been with Barton some time, haven’t you, Miss Lessing?’

RL: ‘Six years.’

VD: ‘And he wouldn’t know what to do without you. Oh yes, I know all about it. And I know all about you, Miss Lessing.’

RL: ‘How do you know?’

VD: ‘Rosemary told me.’

RL: ‘Rosemary? But – ‘

VD: ‘That’s all right. I don’t propose to worry Rosemary any further. She’s already been very nice to me – quite sympathetic. I got a hundred out of her, as a matter of fact.’

RL: ‘You –  That‘s too bad of you, Mr. Drake.’

VD: ‘I’m a very accomplished sponger. Highly finished technique. The matter, for instance, will always come across if I send a wire hinting at imminent suicide.’

RL: ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself.’

VD: ‘I disapprove of myself very deeply. I’m a bad lot, Miss Lessing. I’d like you to know just how bad.’

RL: ‘Why?’

VD: ‘I don’t know. You’re different. I couldn’t play up the usual technique to you. Those clear eyes of yours – you wouldn’t fall for it. No, “More sinned against that shining, poor fellow,” wouldn’t cut any ice with you. You’ve no pity in you.’

RL: ‘I despise pity.’

VD: ‘In spite of your name? Ruth is your name, isn’t it? Piquant that. Ruth the ruthless.’

RL: ‘I’ve no sympathy with weakness!’

VD: ‘Who said I was weak? No, no, you’re wrong there, my dear. Wicked perhaps. But there’s one thing to be said for me.’

RL: ‘Yes?’

VD: ‘I enjoy myself. Yes, I enjoy myself immensely. I’ve seen a good deal of life, Ruth. I’ve done almost everything. I’ve been an actor and a storekeeper and a waiter and an odd job man, and a luggage porter, and a property man in a circus! I’ve sailed before the mast in a tramp steamer. I’ve been in the running for President in a South American Republic. I’ve been in prison! There are only two things I’ve
never done, an honest day’s work, or paid my own way.’

Notes On Murder On The Orient Express

 

Albert Finney as H. Poirot, Sean Connery Colonel Arbuthnot and Vanessa Regdrave Mary Debenham in 1974’s novel adaptation into a film. The sleuth has an uphill challenge to reveal tissues of lies interwoven in the witnessess’ statements.

 

Rating: 4 out of five

 

Year of Publication: 1934

 

Motive for Murder: Revenge/Hatred

 

Plot:

 

On board of The Simplon Orient Express a mature plot begins to take place. The Istanbul-Calais coach is unusually full in winter. Thirteen people from different nationalities enter and one passenger gets on at the last minute.

A postcard of Simplon Orient Express and Taurus Express. Poirot boards Taurus Express from Aleppo, Syria and meets Mary Debenham and Colonel Artbuthnot.

The journey goes well amidst the snowfall until it leaves Belgrade on the second night. Leaving Vincovi before midnight, at quarter past the train comes to a halt. The snowdrift ahead makes the track impassable.

At twenty-three minutes past one, Hercule Poirot is awakened by the lack of motion of the train. To the Wagon Lit conductor he enquires a bottle of water and is about to get back to sleep when he hears something heavy has fallen with a thud against the door. Having opened his compartment’s door and looked out, he sees to his right down the corridor a woman wearing a scarlet kimono retreating away.

 

The next day after breakfast, M. Bouc, a director at Campaigne Internationale de Wagon Lits who happens to be in another coach, asks his Belgian friend to see him. ‘What has occurred?’ he asks. ‘…a passenger lies dead in his berth – stabbed.’

 

The night before Samuel Ratchett offered Poirot a handsome amount of money for his service. ‘My life has been threatened,’ Ratchett says. The other responds,’If you will forgive me for being personal – I do not like your face, M. Ratchett.’

 

Twelve stabbing wounds in Ratchett’s body. The missing button of the Wagon Lit conductor. A bloody dagger found in a passenger’s sponge bag.

 

Of the thirteen passengers in the coach, who has murdered the American man?

 

 

Highlights:

 

The most famous book of Christie’s, the 10th Poirot’s novel is admired by many fans owing to the setting and the nature of the crime. In the former Yugoslavia the heavy snowfall has altered everything.  What is more, the unprecedented appearance of a little man with an egg-shaped head whom replaces a passenger who does not turn up. Having got off the Taurus Express at Istanbul, Hercule Poirot would have expected to spend three days at the heart of the former Ottoman Empire when an important telegram was received in the hotel, requiring his presence in London in his earliest convenience.

In the First Class compartment he is next to Rachett. Convenient or coincidence? What is more interesting is his declining £20,000 in fee from the American man. And apparently it is not because of the man’s face, but something more profound. On setting his eyes on Ratchett, to his friend  M. Bouc  he says, ‘I had a curious impression. It was as though a wild animal – an animal savage, but savage! You understand –had passed me by.’

 

A tiny scrap of paper discovered in Ratchett’s compartment leads to Poirot’s knowledge about other death threat letters the deceased has received. At any rate  it clarifies Ratchett’s identity. For he was Casetti, who kidnapped a three-year-old Daisy Armstrong in the USA and killed her afterwards whilst asking the ransom money to her family (see Clues).

 

Somehow he escaped justice in the country What circumstances that rendered the twelve jurors the non-guilty verdict? I was hoping there would have been an explanation about it. Did the defendant have a deal with the authority? For I recall Louise Leidner, who reports her first husband to the Intelligence in the later novel Murder In Mesopotamia. As she receives the death threats, the shadow of her past doing resurges. She may not say anything about the old sin to Poirot , but it is then elaborated in the end as to the motive of the murderer.

 

Be that as it may, there are similarities between Ratchett and Mrs. Leidner’s killing. The revenge/hatred motive is ingrained in the mind of the perpetrators. It is also an ultimate revenge; life for life for little Daisy. I wonder, however, how much it would have meant for the murderers after Ratchett eventually dies. For neither the little girl nor her parents could have been alive again.

 

What does the killing suggests is the meticulous plan on the part of the mastermind. On the one hand, there is not an iota of sympathy for the victim, for he is a wicked man deemed such punishment. On the other, the ‘execution-style’ killing is required  to ascertain that ‘justice’ is witnessed by everybody concerned.

What is most fascinating to my mind is the different kinds of stabbing wounds; two or three forceful and fatal ones whilst the rest seem to have been done reluctantly after the body has had no longer life in him. What can Poirot deduce from them? One person who caused the death and others who then came in to witness and each gave a ‘symbolic’ stab. Frankly speaking, I shuddered to think about it.

 

Ratchett gets his due whilst his murderers get away. In the end Poirot offers two ways of looking at the case and the decision as to which version that would be presented to the Yugoslavian police is in the hands of M. Bouc. With the company’s reputation is at stake, he must choose what benefits everyone. Has he decided right, do you think, considering the deceased is an evil?

 

I am intrigued that the popularity of the book may sum up the public’s feelings about the agreed version of the murder. Nonetheless I disagree. Although the solution answers my present astonishment towards the ending of Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case. I tell you later why.

 

It helps to have read Cards On The Table beforehand. For I understand what has become of the dagger. Poirot shows it to Anne Meredith, one of the suspects in the stabbing of Mr. Shaitana, when she visits his house with her friend Rhoda Dawes. Apparently M. Bouc has given it as a ‘gift’ besides  ‘a token of gratitude,’ ie. a handsome fee on behalf of the company.

 

Lastly, it fascinates me that Christie has somehow confused The Orient Express with The Simplon Orient Express. As I looked up the history of the former, Compaigne Internationale de Wagon Lits concurs with the Orient Express’s owner. Nevertheless the story is set in the Simplon Orient Express, which is an entirely different train. The following paragraph, quoted from the website, may clarify the matter:

 

Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ isn’t set on the Orient Express, it’s set on the Simplon Orient Express.  By the 1920s and 30s there were a whole inter-connecting network of Wagons-Lits company trains with ‘Orient Express’ as part of their name in addition to the Orient Express itself.  The Orient Express has always run from Paris Gare de l’Est via Munich, Vienna & Budapest, whereas the Simplon Orient Express started running in April 1919, taking a Southerly route from Calais and Paris Gare de Lyon to Milan, Venice, Trieste, Zagreb, Belgrade, Sofia and Istanbul, with a portion for Athens.  In the 1920s and 30s the Simplon Orient Express linked Calais, Paris and Istanbul every day, whereas the (plain) Orient Express only carried Paris-Istanbul cars three times a week, although both Orient and Simplon Orient would have been one combined train east of Belgrade.

 

On 12 December 2009, EuroNight train number 469 ‘Orient Express’ left Strasbourg on its final overnight run to Vienna.  On 13th December it disappeared from Europe’s timetable after 126 years.

 

As far as I am concerned, this is the only case in which Poirot relies heavily on his imagination under an extraordinary circumstances solved within twenty-four hours. Who can match Poirot but Holmes?

 

In the meantime, I am very much looking forward to the remake of 1974’s film of the book. Would it be the one who stars as Colonel Arbuthnot better than Sean Connery? I very much doubt it. 🙂

 

 

The Twists:

 

-M. Bouc and Dr. Constantine decide to take on the first solution: the killer gets on the train on  the second night after leaving Istanbul. Approximately when it stops at Belgrade or Vincovci (Vicevi, a town in modern Serbia) as the door is left open. He wears a suit of Wagon Lit uniform on top of his clothes and has a pass key which allows him access to Casetti’s compartment. The victim has been drugged so he would not have heard a stranger came in. After the stabbing the killer leaves through the communicating door leading to Mrs. Hubbard’s and puts the murder weapon into her sponge bag. He takes off the uniform and gets off the train the same way.

A Wagon Lit conductor wearing his uniform in 1950s.

 

– Mr. Harris, the passenger who does not turn up, is a decoy

 

– A missing button of a Wagon Lit conductor is found in Mrs. Hubbard’s room

 

– The uniform is placed on the luggage of Schmidt

 

– An expensive handkerchief with initial ‘H’ is at Casetti’s room

 

– The scarlet kimono is folded neatly and put in Poirot’s room

 

– Ratchett does not speak French

 

– The grease on the passport of Countess Andrenyi’s; on her first name ‘Elena’

 

– Countess Andrenyi is innocent

 

– ‘A man with womanish voice’ is said to have dressed as a Wagon Lit conductor

 

 

Cast of Characters:

 

Passengers in Istanbul – Calais coach:

 

Count and Countess Andrenyi (Hungarians)

 

Antonio Foscarelli (Italian, a car salesman)

 

Colonel Arbuthnot (coming from India)

 

Caroline Hubbard (American)

 

Cyrus Hardman (a type-writing ribbon salesman)

 

Princess Dragomiroff (Russian, an aristocrat)

 

Edward Masterman (English, Ratchett’s valet)

 

Greta Ohlsson (Swedish)

 

Hector MacQueen (American, Ratchett’s secretary)

 

Hercule Poirot

 

Hildegarde Schmidt (German, Princess Dragomiroff’s maid)

 

Mary Debenham (a governess travelling from Baghdad)

 

Samuel Ratchett (the victim)

 

 

 

From the Athens coach:

 

– M. Bouc (a director at the Compagnie Internationale de Wagon Lits)

 

– Dr. Constantine

 

Others:

 

-Pierre Michel, the Wagon Lit conductor

 

 

The Most Fascinating Character: Countess Andrenyi (Helena Maria)

 

‘Is it possible, Mademoiselle, that you did not recognize in the Countess Andrenyi Mrs. Armstrong’s young sister whom you taught in New York?’ asks Poirot to Mary Debenham.

 

A clothing shop at Wigmore Street, Central London, of which the Countess thinks of having to give an answer to the name of her governess.

She replies that she has not realised who the Countess was. ‘I noticed her clothes more than her face,’ she reasons. Indeed? Bearing in mind that she only has not seen her for three years, it amazes me that she should not have noticed something about her ex-charge. Particularly that Debenham was in employ by Sonia Armstrong as a secretary and apparently lived under the same roof.

 

By the same token, the Countess ought to have understood who Miss Debenham was. Apparently she knows and does her best to conceal the other woman’s real identity, having invented the name ‘Miss Freebody’ when enquired by Poirot (Debenham and Freebody is a  long-standing clothing shop in Central London).

 

The grease on her passport is the doing of her husband when the news reached him that a luxurious handkerchief with initial ‘H’ had been found at the crime scene. With an intention to shelter his wife he lies during the interview that her first name is ‘Elena’ instead of Helena. Nonetheless, he solemnly swears to Poirot that his wife never left her compartment on the night of the murder.

 

Linda Arden’s younger daughter is a poor rich girl like Iris Marle (Sparkling Cyanide). At the time of the kidnapping, she might have been too small to understand hatred and sorrow, but profound sadness at the deaths of an idolised niece Daisy and an elder sister Sonia. Her mother’s deep sentiment towards bringing Ratchett to justice does not seem to affect Helena.

 

I bow to Christie for her; that her innocence preserved and she sounds to bear no grudge to Ratchett. Perhaps, there is an iota of sympathy for him after all.

 

 

Clues:

 

About the Armstrongs’s case (summarised by Poirot):

 

‘Colonel Armstrong was an Englishman – a V.C. [Victoria Cross]. He was half American, as his mother was a daughter of W.K. Van der Halt, the Wall Street millionaire. He married the daughter of Linda Arden, the most famous tragic American actress of her day. They lived in America and had one child – a girl – whom they idolized. When she was three years old she was kidnapped, an an impossibly high sum demanded as the price of her return. I will not weary you with all the intricacies that followed. I will come to the moment, when, after having paid over the enormous sum of two-hundred-thousand dollars, the child’s dead body was discovered, it having been dead at least a fortnight. Public indignation rose to fever point. And there was worse to follow. Following the shock of the discovery, she gave birth to a dead child born prematurely, and herself died. Her broken-hearted husband shot himself.’

 

 

 

-Count Andrenyi: ‘Consider my position. Do you think I could stand the thought of my wife dragged through a sordid police case. She was innocent, I knew it, but what she said was true – because of her connection with the Armstrong family she would have been immediately suspected. She would have been questioned – arrested, perhaps. Since some evil chance had taken us on the same train as this man Ratchett, there was, I felt sure, but one thing for it. I admit, Monsieur, that I lied to you – all, that is, save in one thing. My wife never left her compartment last night.’

 

 

 

– H. MacQueen’s (HM) query to Poirot:

 

HM: ‘If I’m not being unduly curious, just how did you figure this out? Casetti’s identity, I mean.’

 

P: ‘By a fragment of a letter found in his compartment.’

 

HM: ‘But surely – I mean- that was rather careless of the old man?’

 

P: ‘That depends on the point of view.’