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.

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Notes On The Body In The Library

Rating: four out of five

Year of Publication: 1942

Motive for Crimes: Wealth

Plot:

‘Is that you, Jane?’

Miss Marple was very much surprised.

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones’s The King Copethua and The Beggar Maid in 1884. Now it is in Tate Gallery Britain, London, UK.

‘Yes, it’s Jane. You’re up very early, Dolly.’ Mrs. Bantry’s voice came breathless and agitated over the wires.

‘The most awful thing has happened.’

‘Oh, my dear.’

‘We’ve just found a body in the library.’

For a moment Miss Marple thought her friend had gone mad.

‘You’ve found a what?’

‘I know. One doesn’t believe it, does one? I mean, I thought they only happened in books. I had to argue for hours with Arthur this morning before he’d even go down and see.’

Miss Marple tried to collect herself. She demanded breathlessly: ‘But whose body is it?’

‘It’s a blonde.’

‘A what?’

‘A blonde. A beautiful blonde – like books again. None of us have ever seen her before. She’s just lying in the library, dead. That’s why you’ve got to come up at once.’

‘You want me to come up?’

‘Yes, I’m sending the car down for you.’

Miss Marple said doubtfully: ‘Of course,dear, if you think I can be any of comfort to you –‘

‘Oh, I don’t want comfort. But you’re so good at bodies.’

‘Oh, no, indeed. My little successes have been mostly theoretical.’

‘But you’re very good at murders. She’s been murdered, you see, strangled. What I feel is that if one has got to have a murder actually happening in one’s house, one might as well enjoy it, if you know what I mean. That’s why I want you to come and help me find out who did it and unravel the mystery and all that. It really is rather thrilling, isn’t it?’

‘Well, of course, my dear, if I can be of any help to you.’

Highlights:

In 283 words the plot is summed up: Dolly Bantry is marching orders as an urgent matter arising: her family’s reputation is at stake. She realises what St. Mary Mead would think of the body of a young woman with somewhat tawdry and cheap appearance in their home. There is little her husband, Colonel Bantry, can do but shows his defiant silence.

Mrs. Bantry means business. Nonetheless it is unlikely that her presence nor her views would be listened to in the investigation and therefore this is where her old friend Miss Marple comes in. For the gentle spinster has a wide collection of village parallels which depict human behaviour and their reactions. She is then expected to produce a rabbit of out Mrs. Bantry’s hat, as concluded by Sir Henry Clithering who appears in the second half the story.

Furthermore, as the Chief Gossippers Miss Hartnell and Miss Wetherby set off to speculate on the suspects, Mrs. Bantry has taken her friend to stay at the Majestic Hotel no sooner than the victim is identified as a former dancer Ruby Keene.

Enter Basil Blake, the young man who lives near the Bantrys’ and is infamously associated with late night ‘wild parties’ – mind, a naked woman in the bath tub is quite shocking over seventy years ago. It seems fitting to suppose that he and Keene know each other, particularly that he’s been seen at the hotel. What is more, he later admits to have dumped the body in Gossington Hall.

The disabled but rich Conway Jefferson drives away the attention from Blake for a while. Having reported Keene for being missing ‘out of concern, Jefferson who stays in the hotel along with his son-in-law Mark Gaskell and his daughter-in-law Adelaide (see The Most Fascinating Character) is evidently besotted by Keene. He tells the police that he would have

Emma Williams as Ruby Keene in 2004’s adaptation

adopted the eighteen-year-old girl; a decision that has been met with opposition from both Mark and Adelaide owing to his father-in-law having only met her over a month ago. There is another thing, too (see The Twists below).

The domineering personality of Jefferson, which is in contrast to the tortoise-like Colonel Bantry is a deliberate droll, as well as the hurting pride of Inspector Slack (of St. Mary Mead police) shadowed by his superiors from two different counties in addition to the former Scotland Yard Inspector Sir Henry. The latter is conveniently a friend of Jefferson’s (being a millionaire) and Miss Marple ( ‘The old lady knows everything that goes on in the village, that’s true enough. But she’ll be out of her depth here,’ says Inspector Slack to Colonel Melchett).

The dynamics among the male characters is more intriguing with Raymond Starr, the tennis coach and Keene’s dancing partner, who makes a move to Adelaide for her money and the Maleficent Mark who is almost broke. Both Adelaide and Mark gather that despite their father-in-law’s life spirit, he won’t live long.

As things get tensed among the men, the second body is found in a quarry: a burnt body of a female’s in George Bartlett’s car. He is the last person to have danced with Keene before she decides to go back to her room in the night of the murder. Meanwhile, the teenage Pamela Reeves has not gone back after the Girls’ Guide Rally in the same night.

How the two murders are linked is for you, readers, to find out.

As far as I am concerned, the book often comes out in the top ten of Christie’s. I’d rather think this is unjustified, for The Moving Finger (published first in the US in July 1942) is as intriguing. Furthermore, as Gossington Hall is revisited in The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side (1962), the now widow Mrs. Bantry reunites with Miss Marple to solve the poisoning of Heather Badcock in front of a small audience at the former library (sadly it has been knocked down to make for an open plan floor when the house was sold to the actress Marina Gregg). Some similarities can be drawn from the latter book, for just as The Body… Christie dwells on the raw emotions that surge as a result of the victims who have upset the killers.

I find it fascinating that there is a sombre mood in The Body…, which is unlike its predecessor Evil Under The Sun (1941). First, whilst Poirot is confident with his grey cells to catch the perpetrators, Miss Marple has doubts and seems beside herself. Second, the setting from Jolly Rogers Hotel to St. Mary Mead pinpoints the authoress’s concerns regarding the news from the front. Christie might have written The Body… during the London Bombing and amidst the uncertainty of the situation. But she managed to carry on writing. Her observation to the era  which still upholds the Victorian values on men’s attitude towards women is hard hitting but honest.

What I like most from is the vulnerability of each character. Keene, for example, is not a nice girl full of life after all. ‘She likes butting in,’ says Peter Carmody, the son of Adelaide’s. As for Edward, Jefferson’s valet, Keene would have been quite a schemer in another five years (see Clues). Her contemporary is Elsa Greer (Five Little Pigs, 1943). Likewise, Adelaide Jefferson reveals something to Mrs. Bantry despite her looking composed and a woman with a class.

Lastly is Miss Marple’s comparing Jefferson and Keene’s relationship to the tale of King Copethua and the Beggar Maid. Jefferson is the kind-hearted ‘king’ while Keene is Penelophon the maid the king has spotted on the street and taken her to his court. The king in the tale marries her after a month, but in Christie’s world Keene is killed after a month’s dancing at the hotel.

I wonder what has inspired Christi to draw the parallels; is it her feeling fascinated by the painting or her favourite poet Lord Tennyson’s The Beggar Maid? I wonder whether it is none of those but to remind women of the seemingly delicate Penelophon but a feisty one as the king’s mistress in the court.

Moreover is Reeves’s daydreaming, which sounds like Aesop’sThe Milkmaid and Her Pail Fable (see Clues). Only for Christie the life of these women must end. And yet she has left readers to guess how both Keene and Reeves actually die.

Finally, ‘A Blonde In The Library’ would make a better title. What do you think?

The Twists:

  • Josie Turner’s face turns angry when she comes to identify Ruby Keene’s body at Gossington Hall
  • Conway Jefferson has left Ruby Keene £50,000 in a trust until she turns 25
  • Rubby Keene stops her dance with George Bartlett because of her feeling sleepy and having a subsequent headache
  • The finger nails of the body in the library are short and chipped, but not trimmed. Her dress is cheap and her make-up is tawdry.
  • Pamela Reeves has a meeting with Mark Gaskell prior to her death

 

Cast of Characters:

Adelaide Jefferson (Conway Jefferson’s daughter-in-law)

The Beggar Maid Her arms across her breast she laid; She was more fair than words can say; Barefooted came the beggar maid Before the king Cophetua. In robe and crown the king stept down, To meet and greet her on her way; ‘It is no wonder,’ said the lords, ‘She is more beautiful than day.’ As shines the moon in clouded skies, She in her poor attire was seen; One praised her ankles, one her eyes, One her dark hair and lovesome mien. So sweet a face, such angel grace, In all that land had never been. Cophetua sware a royal oath: ‘This beggar maid shall be my queen!’ Lord Alfred Tennyson

Albert Briggs (a labourer at Venn’s quarry where a body in a burnt car is found)

The Bantrys (Colonel Arthur and Dolly)

Basil Blake (the Bantrys’s neighbour)

Conway Jefferson (a magnate and disabled man)

Dinah Lee (Basil’s wife)

Edward (Jefferson’s valet)

Florence Small (Pamela’s friend)

George Bartlett (a hotel guest who dances the last with Keene)

Miss Hartnell (a resident at St. Mary Mead)

Superintendent Harper (of Radfordshire Police)

Dr. Haydock (the forensic doctor who examines the body in the library)

Sir Henry Clithering (the ‘jobbing gardener’ who attends the case in a personal capacity)

Hugo McLean (Adelaide’s man – with whom she wants to marry)

Josephine Turner (Ruby Keene’s cousin)

Lorrimer (the Bantrys’s butler)

Mark Gaskell (Jefferson’s son-in-law)

Colonel Melchett (the Chief Constable of Glenshire)

Dr. Meltcaff (the forensic doctor who examines the burnt body at the quarry)

Peter Carmody (Adelaide’s son)

Raymond Starr (Josie’s dancing partner at the hotel and a tennis coach)

Constable Palk (St. Mary Mead’s police constable)

Mr. Prestcott (the hotel manager)

The Reeves (Pamela’s parents)

Inspector Slack (Palk’s superior)

Miss Wetherby (a resident at St. Mary Mead)

The Most Fascinating Character: Adelaide Jefferson

‘I’ve never been Frank’s widow to him- I’ve been Frank’s wife’

Mrs. Jefferson to Dolly Bantry

Tara Fitzgerald, actress and director, as Addie in 2004’s TV adaptation of the book. She is playing in BBC’s The Musketeers Series.

The loyal and obedient daughter-in-law of Conway Jefferson, Adelaide is a widow when Jefferson’s late son Frank marries her. Hence the presence of Peter, a bright ten-year-old boy who provides Miss Marple with a crucial evidence.

A fatal accident extinguishes Frank’s life and Mark’s wife Rosamund but spares the old Jefferson – now is disabled from waist down.

Adelaide depends on her father-in-law financially. For he has no idea that his son has left Adelaide and Peter little money due to the bad investment. Because of Peter she puts up with Jefferson’s domineering personality and continues to do so until the Summer.

For a few years she has known Hugo Mc Lean, of whom has proposed her. But then she has made up her mind to tell Jefferson that she would accept his proposal and that means she would leave him. In the meantime, Raymond Starr has made advances to her although little does he know that she is not as rich as he has thought.

Ruby Keene’s getting closer to Jefferson worries Adelaide. She does not like her for what she has been after; to Mrs. Bantry she concludes Keene as ‘a decided little gold digger.’ Furthermore she reveals her thinking of killing Keene to secure her son’s future. ‘Peter’s whole future depends on Jeff. Jeff practically looked on him as a grandson, or so I thought, but of course, he wasn’t a grandson. He was no relation at all. And to think that he was going to be – disinherited!’

When Mrs. Bantry tells Miss Marple about Adelaide’s relationship with Mc Lean and the fact that he is being devoted to the widow, here is Miss Marple’s response: ‘I know. Like Major Bury. He hang around an Anglo-Indian widow for quite ten years. A joke among her friends! In the end she gave in – but unfortunately ten days before they were married she ran away with the chauffeur! Such a nice woman, too and usually so well balanced.’

Did Miss Marple compare Adelaide to the Anglo-Indian widow? Did Adelaide know something else she wouldn’t tell?

Clues:

  • The victims in the words of the witnesses:
  • Ruby Keene

Josephine Turner to Colonel Melchett:

‘Her name was Ruby Keene – her professional name, that is. Her real name was Rosy Legge. Her mother was my mother’s cousin. I’ve known her all my life, but not particularly well, if you know what I mean. I’ve got a lot of cousins – some in business, some on the stage. Ruby was more or less training for a dancer. She had some good engagements last year in panto and that of sort of thing. Not really classy, but good provincial companies. Since then she’s been engaged as one of the dancing partners at the Palais de Danse in Brixwell – South London. It’s a nice respectable place and they look after the girls well, but there isn’t much money in it.

Now this is where I come in. I’ve been dance and bridge hostess at the Majestic in Danemouth for three years. It’s a good job, well paid and pleasant to do. You look after people when they arrive – size them up , of course- some like to be left alone and others are lonely and want to get into the swings of things….

I do a couple of exhibition dances every evening with Raymond. Raymond Starr – he’s the tennis and dancing pro. Well, as it happens, this summer I slipped on the rocks bathing one day and gave my ankle a nasty turn.’

Peter Carmody (PC) to Colonel Melchett and Superintendent Harper (SH):

PC: ‘Well, I didn’t like her much. I think she was rather a stupid sort of girl. Mum and Uncle Mark didn’t like her much either. Only Grandfather. Grandfather wants to see you, by the way. Edward is looking for you.’

SH: ‘So your mother and your Uncle Mark didn’t like Ruby Keene much? Why was that?’

PC: ‘Oh, I don’t know. She was always butting in. And they didn’t like Grandfather making such a fuss of her. I expect,’ said Peter cheerfully,’ that they’re glad she’s dead.’

SH: ‘Did you hear them – er- say so?’

PC: ‘Well, not exactly. Uncle Mark said: “Well, it’s one way out, anyway,” and Mum said: “Yes, but such a horrible one,” and Uncle Mark said it was no good being hypocritical.’

Edward the Valet to Sir Henry:

SH: ‘So you think Ruby Keene was a schemer?’

E: ‘She was quite inexperienced, being so young, but she had the making of a very fine schemer indeed when she’d once got well into her swings, so to speak! In another five years she’d have been an expert at the game!’

– Pamela Reeves

Florence Small(FS) to Miss Marple (MM):

MM: ‘What did Pam tell you?’

FS: ‘It was as we were walking up the lane to the bus – on the way to the rally. She asked me if I could keep a secret and I said “Yes,” and she made me swear not to tell. She was going t Danemouth for a film test after the rally! She’d met a film producer – just back from Hollywood, he was. He wanted a certain type, and he told Pam she was just what he was looking for. He warned her, though. Not to build on it. You couldn’t tell, he said, not until you saw a person photographed. It might be no good at all. It was a kind of Bergner part, he said. You had to have someone quite young for it. A schoolgirl, it was, who changes places with a revue artist and has a wonderful career. Pam’s acted in plays at school and she’s awfully good….’

‘So it was all arranged. Pam was to go into Danemouth after the rally and meet him at his hotel and he’d take her along to the studios (they’d got a small testing studio in Danemouth, he told her). She’d have her test and she could catch the bus home afterwards. She could say she’d been shopping, and he’d let her know the result of the test in a few days, and if it was favourable Mr. Harmsteiter, the boss, would come along and talk to her parents.

II. About The Copethua Complex :

Conway Jefferson to Superintendent Harper and Colonel Melchett:

‘So you must understand that, essentially, I’m a lonely man. I like young people. I enjoy them. Once or twice I’ve played with the idea of adopting some girl or boy. During this last month I got very friendly with the child who’s been killed. She was absolutely natural – completely naive. She chattered on about her life and her experiences – in pantomime, with touring companies, with Mum and Dad as a child in cheap lodgings. Such a different life from any I’ve known! Never complaining, never seeing it as sordid. Just a natural, uncomplaining, hard-working child, unspoilt and charming. Not a lady, perhaps, but thank God, neither vulgar nor – abominable word- ‘lady’like.’

I got more and more fond of Ruby. I decided, gentlemen, to adopt her legally. She would become –by law- my daughter. That, I hope, explains my concern for her and the steps I took when I heard of her unaccountable disappearance.’

III. A Crucial Clue

Peter Carmory to Miss Marple, Dolly Bantry and Sir Henry Clithering:

PC: ‘See, it’s a finger-nail. Her finger-nail! I’m going to label it Finger-nail Of The Murdered Woman and take it back to school. It’s a good souvenir, don’t you think?’

MM: ‘Where did you get it?’

PC: ‘Well, it was a bit of luck, really. Because, of course, I didn’t know she was going to be murdered then. It was before dinner last night. Ruby caught her nail in Josie’s shawl and it tore it. Mum cut it off for her and gave it to me and said put it in the wastepaper basket, and I meant to, but I put it in my pocket instead, and this morning I remembered and looked to see if it was still there and it was, so now I’ve got it as a souvenir.

DB: ‘Disgusting.’

PC: ‘Oh, do you think so?’

Notes On Taken At The Flood

Rating: 4.3 out of five

Year of Publication: 1948

Motive for Murder: Lack of motive

Plot:

London, autumn 1944.  Gordon Cloade is killed in an air raid along with his two servants. His young wife, Rosaleen, of whom he married a few weeks before survives. She is now the sole beneficiary of the billionaire Gordon.

In the late spring 1946 Hercule Poirot receives a visit from a middle-aged woman, Katherine Cloade. The wife of Gordon’s younger brother wants the Belgian to find Rosaleen’s first husband, Robert Underhay. For the spirits have guided her to consult the matter as Mr. Underhay is possibly alive after all; that the report of his death from fever in Africa might not have been true. Poirot refuses to represent her on the grounds of her muddled explanation, particularly as it involves spiritualism.

In the early spring 1946 Lynn Marchmont comes home after four years service abroad as a Wren. In the aftermath of the War she finds out her mother, Gordon’s younger sister, is struggling financially, just like the rest of the Cloades. For they were all used to the idea of depending on the deceased whose fortune would have settled their debts and money worries.

Five days after Mrs. Cloade’s visit, Poirot reads on the paper about the death of Enoch Arden, a guest at the Stag inn in the village where the woman lives. He is found dead in his bed with fractures in his skull. More importantly he recalls a rambling of old Major Porter in the club after Gordon’s death. He said he had known Mr. Underhay. He then relayed the other man’s words: ‘”If a report of my death gets back that will make Rosaleen a widow, which is what she wants.”’ ‘And what about you?’ I said. “Well, maybe a Mr. Enoch Arden will turn up somewhere a thousand miles or so away and start life anew.”’

Is the dead Arden Robert Underhay? At the inquest, who is one to believe: Rosaleen Cloade, who says that she has never seen the deceased in her life or Major Porter, who contradicts her statement, having identified the deceased as indeed Underhay?  Afterward police arrest David Hunter, Rosaleen’s brother, for the murder.

 

Highlights:

The ghosts of the War seem to haunt the lives of the women in post-war Britain. Do their husbands die or their being missing in action?

The plot touches the impact of Enoch Arden that might have blighted the lives for many unfortunate women with small children needing to survive. Is it bad to wish their husbands have gone and their moving on?

In Christie’s world, the pressing matter is not the mere predicament, but the people who takes opportunity of the situation. Or some who would not want to lose a nice life deemed to be almost non-existent for most people after the War.

After ten years in a deserted island, Enoch Arden the merchant seaman finally returns home, only to find his wife has remarried and has a child.

Gordon Cloade was sixty-two years old bachelor when he met Rosaleen. His unprecedented marriage is quietly disapproved by his relatives, undoubtedly owing to their being unable to get their hands of his wealth. As the news of his death reaches them, all of a sudden their sheltered life is ruined. Supposing then Rosaleen’s first husband has not died after all?

Be that as it may, the Cloades are good people. As respected members of the community, their feeling bitter about the reality is not much different to everybody else whom is on the brink of bankruptcy. Yet in their upbringing it may not occur to their minds to act beyond a wishful thinking, let alone plotting a murder. A little trick, yes, as ‘Enoch Arden’ turns out to be Frances Cloade’s cousin.

Here Christie discusses the sentiment against a rich poor girl Rosaleen Cloade; a stranger who comes to fortune and the woman as a person. Opinions are divided among the Cloades; to the women Gordon’s widow is a lamb, yet to the men she is definitely a trouble. Her brother, a war hero, puts the family in a difficult situation owing to his cynical attitude and spiteful remarks to the Cloades.

Pride and prejudice as well as sense and sensibility are rife in the exchanges of words. Just like Arundells (Dumb Witness), the Cloades do not pretend about resenting David Hunter controlling his sister moneywise.

Hunter the Brutus is against Rowley Cloade the Cassius (see Clues about them).  The men hate one another; not entirely because of money but as a competitor to win the heart of Lynn’s. They deploy power differently; Hunter has the means of money whereas the young Cloade is able to conjure up Major Porter at the inquest with the help of Poirot.

What ‘Enoch Arden’ has done is to upset both plans. No sooner has he checked in at the Stag than he turns the tables. He makes Hunter believe he was Rosaleen’s first husband. Panicking, Hunter bows easily to the other’s demand of £10,000 in cash. He brings the money to the inn only to find a lifeless body of Arden’s. And it puts him in the tight spot because the body is still warm.

Major Porter’s suicide after the inquest astounds Rowley. He has not seen it coming, for he persuaded the deceased to give a false testament about Arden’s identity. He succeeds to have planted the suspicion to Hunter whereby he is charged with the murder of Arden.

The authoress’s focus on the male characters, inspired by Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, is the most brilliant part of the book.  Most significantly Lynn Marchmont’s responses. A triangle of love that brings about a woman to see the contrasting personality between two men; one adventurous and attractive and the other contended in the quiet life of the countryside, untouched by war.

What is more, the dynamics among the minor characters are equal to a host of parodies attempting to claim the individual rights towards Gordon’s money. One comes with a spirit angle in her tale (see The Most Fascinating Character), another teams up with a crooked cousin and Lynn’s mother chooses the plain way of begging for a huge sum of loan.

Act Four in the play sees Brutus attacks Cassius who accepts bribes.  They reconcile after Brutus reveals that his beloved wife Portia had committed suicide under the stress of his absence from Rome. In Christie’s book, Rosaleen is sadly dead in her bed from an overdose of morphia. The harmless Bromide, prescribed by Dr. Lionel Cloade, is substituted with the similar-looking tablet containing the fatal dose.

As mentioned above, it is the lack of motive that motivates the murderer; two thumbs-up to the reverse logic that beguiles the readers.

The recruiting poster for Wrens in the Second World War.

My only criticism is the seemingly easy adjustment of Lynn Marchmont into civilian life. Surely the War has changed her as a person; a woman on the crossroads judging her option of being a farmer’s wife or eloping with a ‘dangerously attractive man. I wonder if she did not see anything in Egypt that are disturbing. Besides, there is no mention about what she did in the overseas unit – not even an inkling of it. Nor the lines which suggest her being sworn to secrecy and therefore is not at liberty to talk about her role. Instead, Christie’s focus is on her love life the domestic issues with  a trying mother.

Lastly, the book sees the beginning of the fruitful relationship between Superintendent Spence (Mrs. McGinty’s Dead and Hallowe’en Party) and Poirot.

To conclude, Taken At The Flood elucidates the impacts of the War for ordinary people wrapped in  crimes and passion.

 

The Twists:

 

– Enoch Arden’s real name is Charles Trenton

– The real Rosaleen Cloade is killed with her husband during the air raid whilst the housemaid is not

– Rosaleen Cloade is Catholic

 

Cast of Characters:

The Cloades:

Adela Marchmont (Gordon’s sister)

Frances (nee Trenton, Jeremy’s wife)

Gordon (killed in an air raid in London in 1944)

Jeremy (Gordon’s brother, Frances’s husband)

Katherine (Lionel’s wife)

Lionel (a doctor, Gordon’s other brother)

Lynn Marchmont (Adela’s daughter)

Rosaleen (ex Mrs. Underhay, Gordon’s wife)

Rowley (Lynn’s cousin and fiancé)

 

In the poem, Enoch Arden does not let himself known to his wife following his return for fear of ruining her happiness.

Others:

Beatrice Lippincott (the manageress at the Stag, the local inn where Arden stays)

Charles Trenton (a.k.a. Enoch Arden, Frances’s cousin)

David Hunter (Rosaleen’s brother)

Sergeant Graves

Hercule Poirot

Mr. Mellon (Poirot’s acquaintance at the club)

Major Porter (an ex-army man and a club member where Poirot hears about Gordon Cloade for the first time)

Superintendent Spence

The coroner at Enoch Arden inquest

 

The Most Fascinating Character: Katherine Cloade

Irony is what seems to be the fate of Dr. Lionel Cloade’s wife. To everyone she is ‘auntie Kathie,’ a slightly eccentric woman devoted to séance and the After World. In the prologue she pays a visit to Poirot; more or less eighteen months after her brother-in-law’s demise.

George the manservant describes her look to the Belgian: ‘She would be aged between forty and fifty, I should say, sir. Untidy and somewhat artistic in appearance. Good walking-shoes, brogues. A tweed coat and skirt – but a lace blouse. Some questionable Egyptian beads and a blue chiffon scarf.’

Her ‘provincial look’ resembles Mabelle Sainsbury Seale (see Notes On One,Two Buckle My Shoe) and the artisan touch makes her equal to Cora Lansquenet (After The Funeral). Reluctantly the sleuth receives her, knowing too well that she is quite determined to see him, having come straight from the country.

Her nonsensical story about some spirits that pinpoints ‘H.P.’ and her quoting a part of a children’s nursery rhymes for symbolising ‘Underhay’ are hilarious. Her confusing words about detective’s fee  intrigues him at that time; beyond her mishap sartorial choice and comical behaviour. Unfortunately she is then turned down (which is a big mistake on Poirot’s part as he gets his due from her nephew Rowley)!

With dignity she accepts his refusal and leaves. Perhaps she does not think of their crossing their path again.

Celia Imrie gives an outstanding performance as ‘aunt Kathie’ in 2006’s Poirot TV series.

Beyond the muddled mind of hers there is a woman suffers greatly in silence. Ever since the War her husband has been a drug addict. Their wealth has dwindled fast owing to his dependence to morphine and his empty promise to stop the terrible habit. Nobody else needs to know about  it  and she will not dream to tell anyone either.

I admire her in a way, sticking to the principle of not begging. For unlike her husband she does not ask a penny to Rosaleen. Instead she offers the other to live with her after Hunter is charged with Arden’s murder. Despite being nearly in destitute, she gives her niece Lynn a homecoming party.

In the book she is like a shadow, speaking very little about herself. There is not much interest about this childless woman who is warm at heart and sincere. Fortunately she does seem to have a real friend and her relationship with Adella Marchmont and Frances are limited to the pleasantries for sister-in-laws. And therefore I would very much like to be her friend.

 

Clues:  

Brutus and Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.Christie reinvents the characters in David Hunter and Rowley Cloade in the book.

 

Conversations between Rosaleen Cloade (RC) and David Hunter (DH):

RC: ‘I’ll do what you tell me, David.’

DH: ‘There’s the girl! All you have to do, Rosaleen, is to stick to your story. Hold it that the dead man is not your husband, Robert Underhay.’

RC: ‘They’ll trap me into saying things I don’t mean.’

DH: ‘No – they won’t. It’s all right, I tell you.’

RC: ‘No, it’s wrong – it’s been wrong all along. Taking money that doesn’t belong to us. I lie awake nights thinking of it, David. Taking what doesn’t belong to us. God is punishing us for our wickedness.’

DH: ‘Listen, ROsaleen. Do you want me to be hanged.’

RC: ‘Oh, David, you wouldn’t – they couldn’t –‘

DH: ‘There’s only one person who can hang me – that’s you. If you once admit, by look or sign or word, that the dead man might be Underhay, you put the rope round my neck! Do you understand that?’

RC: ‘I’m so stupid, David.’

DH: ‘No, you’re not. In any case you haven’t got to be clever. You’ll have to swear solemnly that the dead man is not your husband. You can do that?’

‘Look stupid if you like. Look as if you don’t understand quite what they are asking you. That will do no harm. But stand firm on the points I’ve gone over with you. Gaythorne will look after you. He’s a very able criminal lawyer – that’s why I’ve got him. He’ll be at the inquest and he’ll protect you from any heckling. But even to him stick to your story. For God’s sake don’t try to be clever or think you can help me by some line of your own.’

RC: ‘I’ll do it, David. I’ll do exactly what you tell me.’

DH: ‘Good girl. When it’s all over we’ll go away – to the South of France – to America. In the meantime, take care of your health. Don’t lie awake at nights fretting and working yourself up. Take those sleeping things Dr. Cloade prescribed for you – bromide or something. Take one every night, cheer up, and remember there’s a good time coming!’

 

Rowley Croade to Hercule Poirot in the presence of David Hunter and Lynn Marchmont:

‘Ever since that party at Aunt Kathie’s I’d realized – well, never mind all that. I’ve sometimes thought I’m going mad –perhaps I am a bit mad. First Johnnie going – and then the war – I-I-can’t talk about things but sometimes I’d feel blind with rage – and now Lynn- and this fellow. I dragged the dead man into the middle of the room and turned him over on his face. Then I picked up those heavy steel tongs – well, I won’t go into details. I wiped off fingerprints, cleaned up the marble curb – then I deliberately put the hands of the wrist-watch at ten minutes past nine and smashed it. I took away his ration book and his papers – I thought his identity might be traced through them. Then I got out. It seemed to me that with Beatrice’s story of what she’d overheard, David would be for it all right.’

 

Notes On N or M?

Rating: three out of five

Year of Publication:1941

Motive for Murder: Identity

Plot: Tuppence Beresford looks gloomy as she sends off her husband Tommy to Scotland. He has an “office work. Hush-hush and all that, but not doesn’t sound thrilling .” It is the World War II in the bleak Britain. Rumour has it that German invasion is in progress and the Fifth Column movement has drawn many supporters in the country.

Tommy’s assignment is simple: find two German agents, N and M, in Sans Souci; a guest house in the South coast of England. N is a man and M is a woman –both English. Prior to the assignment, a British agent was killed when he was following a lead to the agents’ whereabouts. Before he dies he says “N and M. Song Susie.”

When Tommy arrives, a great surprise is in store. Mrs. Perenna, the proprietress, introduces him to other fellow residents. His attention is immediately drawn to Mrs. Blenkensop, who sits knitting a balaclava. She is none other than Tuppence.

Who are among them are Hitler’s ardent supporters? Is it a Major with sinister remarks and sneers towards a German refugee? A man who often makes a fuss about his health? A mother and her two-year-old daughter? A busy body of an Irish woman? The proprietress herself? Is it true that Carl Von Deinim fleeing from the Nazi prosecution? Moreover, by chance Tuppence see a Polish woman peer inside  the premises vigilantly. She talks to Von Deinim and asks Tuppence some foreign names who might stay at the house.

As the surrender of Paris reaches Tommy and Tuppence, they are racing with time to unmask N and M. Or else, Britain will meet the same faith.

Goosey, goosey, gander Whither shall I wander, Upstairs or downstairs Or in the ladies chamber? There I met an old man Who wouldn’t say his prayers, I took him by the left leg, And threw him down the stairs.

Highlights:

From the Cold War Era in my previous post (Notes on The Clocks) to the Second World War Britain at the time when the public mood hit rock bottom; German was bombing the UK cities and many lives were claimed. Furthermore, the British troop evacuation was undergoing in Dunkirk (whilst nobody had any idea at the time the mess they had been into).

It was clear then at such time a murder might have been the last thing in any readers’ mind. A little cheering up would do – not necessarily a propaganda, mind you.   Matters which British media had not covered or was not allowed to cover due to their sensitive nature. Knowing Christie, she would tend to go to the core of the problem: the Nazi. Yes, readers – the organisation itself.

Here lay the beauty of telling a story – or a crime. For only in stories the characters react and behave in certain ways. Hence contrasting views about the War and the threat of Germans invasion; on the one hand people who openly expressed their admiration towards German’s efficiency and on the other personalities who defended  somewhat unorganised British and its democracy.  The plot related these divided opinions to the degree of penetration of the Nazi and fascism in the UK.

Furthermore, it was not so much about a conspiracy theory which interested me but the authoress’s notion concering German-Anglo alliance. In the sixteenth century during the Reformation Henry VIII clinched the opportunity to replace the Pope whereby he formed the Church of England and declared himself the supreme head on Earth. Personally the Anti-Catholicism that followed bore the same principle to the anti-Nazi prosecution in the concentration camp.

And therefore it was a little wonder a suitable nursery rhymes should accompany.  “Goosey Goosey Wander” caught the mood perfectly for the hunting of two dangerous Nazi agents.   The rest of the plot then followed the lines as guessing games began. But how to smell out spies?  Did it require “witches” as Tommy suggested to Major Bletchley?

It was intriguing how freely Christie discussed at length about Germans, double agents, war strategies and British politics in general. Not only did she have the knack to present each  topic with a degree of sensitivity but also she knew exactly which character as the bearer of certain attitude or remark. More significantly, she managed to capture various moods that made readers see the implications of the War for ordinary people from both sides.

As tensions rose and conflicts occurred, some residents began to suspect one another.  Tuppence had her eyes on Mrs. Perenna whilst Tommy suggested Mrs. Sprot and Miss Minton as “M”.  The kidnapping of little Betty, Mrs. Sprot’s daughter, was unprecedented. In the aftermath a woman was shot through the head and Von Deinim was arrested.

Meanwhile, Tommy was running out of time.  One of the male characters realised that the former was not what he had seemed to be. One evening, he did not come back to the house after leaving Commander Haydock’s home after dinner. Tuppence straightaway knew that he had been captured. Fortunately, help was at hand; Albert, the Beresfords’ ex-manservantas was the backup.  He was then deployed to track Tommy’s whereabouts.

A Priest Hole was originally created in many houses in the UK to hide a Catholic priest on the run during the prosecution period. Then it was also used for different purposes.

Concerning the characters and circumstances, there was a number of similarities with the duo’s later adventure By The Pricking of My Thumb (1968). Tommy’s Aunt Ada reminded readers to Mrs. O’ Rourke, one of Sans Souci’s residents. For both women were observant, shrewd and deduced that something was not right. Nonetheless, Mrs. O’Rourke was Irish and she was not murdered like Aunt Ada (see the Most Fascinating Character). Next, Sunny Ridge was the embodiment of Sans Souci minus a serial killer in the midst.  Thirdly, The House By The Canal –the painting Tuppence found in Aunt Ada’s room-  had a “priest hole”; a secret room behind a wardrobe in which the elderly Tuppence was lured in by the murderer.

What fascinated me was the depth of knowledge the authoress had about the spy. I wondered if the Fifth Column movement was solely her idea. Or did it come from her circle of friends, who might have slipped her information?  For she had gone too far when using “Bletchley” as a minor character’s name and  Deborah, Tuppence’s daughter, worked for the Intelligence Service.  The name was enough to trigger fear that Christie might have hinted about the highly confidential Enigma project at Bletchley Park. Her being under surveillance was revealed recently and it has been learnt that “Bletchley” was sheer coincidence on her part.

Of equal merit, was the conversation between Tommy and his handler Mr. Grant about the double agents was the fruit of Christie’s ingenuity? Or was it from her friends at the top?

Restless’s adaptation into a television series starring Michelle Dockery (Ruth Gilmartin) and Charlotte Rampling (Sally Gilmartin/Eva Delectorskaya) broadcasted on the BBC on 27th and 28th December 2012. Highly recommended.

William  Boyd’s Restless has quite similar plot.  A Russian refugee is recruited as a British agent and subsequently is being framed as a double agent in order to deter the US involvement in the Second World War.

Spionage aside, it was quite difficult to guess who N was. There were seven male characters plus Tommy. There was not much clues that could pinpoint X as a “N” but own surmises based on a character’s descriptions and elimination.  Nor the motive as to why did he turn his back to his country. It was easier to guess “M”, particularly after the kidnap. Tuppence’s remarks and thoughts helped in this regard.

The Clocks plot helped me to realise the medium the woman agent used to conceal information nevertheless. When I remembered the agent Colin Lamb was looking for, everything fell into its place.  The respective agents were associated with children and both were childless.

To sum up, N or M is a feelgood spy thriller with a clever plot. It achieves its aim to lift up people’s spirit about the War. As a crime novel, it does not satisfy hard-up readers who wish for grim murders and all the trimming.

The Twists:

-The tattered children’s book of Little Jack Horner

-Tommy’s accident in the bathroom of Commander Haydock’s home

-the kidnapping of Betty Sprot

-the note from Betty’s kidnapper

-Mrs. O’Rourke found a hammer lying in the drive

-Albert Batt singing if you were the only girl in the world and I was the only boy

Cast of Characters:

Albert Batt (The Beresfords’s ex-manservant)

Anthony Marsdon (Deborah’s colleague)

Major Bletchley

Betty Sprot (Mrs. Sprot’s daughter, a two-year-old girl)

Mr. and Mrs. Cayley

Carl Von Deinim (A German refugee)

Deborah and Derek Beresford (Tommy and Tuppence’s twins)

Mr. Grant (Tommy’s handler)

Commander Haydock (a retired Naval officer, resided at Smugglers’ Nest next to Sans Souci)

Mrs. O’Rourke (an Irish woman)

Mrs. Perenna (the proprietress of Sans Souci)

Miss Sheila Perenna (Mrs. Perenna’ daughter)

Miss Sophia Minton

Mrs. Sprot

Tommy Beresford (as Mr. Meadows)

Tuppence Beresford (as Mrs. Patricia Blenkensop)

Vanda Polonska (a Polish refugee)

The Most Fascinating Character: Mrs. O’Rourke

Christie’s description of her was the most amusing one. ‘She was rather like an ogress dimly remembered from early fairy tales. With her bulk, her deep voice, her unabashed beard and moustache, her deep twinkling eyes and the impression she gave of being more than life-size, she was indeed not unlike some childhood’s fantasy’.

It flashed through my mind the image of Princess Fiona in Shrek. Do you agree?

Mrs. O’Rourke was Irish and a wealthy woman who  owned an antique shop in London – the posh Kensington, in fact. Shrewd and sharp, she had a nose of a dog (see Clues); sniffing about and found that awkward things did happen at Sans Souci. To Mrs. Blenkensop she underlined the fact that some residents did not seem what they were. Moreover, she told her that she did not believe that Mr. Meadowes was rather stupid.

Furthermore, she gave Tuppence a tip about Mrs. Perenna that directed the latter’s attention to the former in search of “M”. Nonetheless, Mrs. O’Rourke did frighten the latter once (you know why – it’s in the book).

I supposed her character set her apart from others as a level-headed person who knew when and to whom she could talk about a particular subject. Her views were far from cynical – a bit of teasing sometimes.  Halfway I was afraid something would have happened to her and later I was pleased that she was not either stabbed or hit on the head.

Clues:

Major Bletchley:

[to Mr. Meadowes]

‘…The only other male in the place is Von Deinim, and to tell you the truth, Meadowes, I’m not easy in my mind about him.’

Mr. Cayley:

‘That woman [Mrs. Sprot] is always plumping that child down and expecting people to look after it…’

Mr. Grant:

[to Tommy Beresford]

‘…There are two possibilities. The whole Von Deinim family may be parties to the arrangement – not improbable under the painstaking Nazi regime. Or else this is not really Carl Von Deinim but a man playing the part of Carl Von Deinim.’

Commander Haydock:

‘You see, Meadowes, it’ like this. Nobody’s supposed to know it but I’m working on Intelligence MI42BX- that’s my department. Ever heard of it?’

Mrs. O’Rourke:

[to Mrs. Blenkensop]

‘You’ll be thinking I’m a terrible talker. It’s true. I’m interested in all my fellow creatures, that’s why I sit in this chair as often as I can. You see who goes in and who goes out and who’s on the veranda and what goes on in the garden…’

Sheila Perenna:

[to Mr. Meadowes]

‘His name [her father’s] was Patrick Maguire. He- he was a follower of Casement in the last war. He was shot as a traitor! All for nothing! For an idea – he worked himself up with those other Irishmen. Why couldn’t he just stay at home quietly and mind his own business? He’s a martyr to some people and a traitor to others. I think he was just  – stupid!’

Tommy Beresford:

[to Tuppence]

‘I suppose that even a secret agent might have a child.’