Saturday, October 2, 2010

Reading the Dame Part 2B: The second half of the 1930s

Reading the Dame Part 2B: The second half of the 1930s

When I first starting writing this it had been about 3 months since I last updated my Agatha Christie project progress. Reading the notes I've been taking on each book, Murder in Three Acts seems such a long time ago.

Last night I walking to a couple from Baltimore who were up at the Grey Lodge for an Authors A'Plenty event. They actually think me doing this is cool (cheers to them for having such a broad interpretation of cool). While mentioning I had read a lot of those Christie books as a youth and was now rereading them as an adult, and the differences between reading them in the 1980s and reading them in 2010 (such as being able to find out what a Continental Baldwin is), I also realized that I have doing this project for a year now. When I mentioned using my buddy's laptop to Google Streetview the address of a then chain coffee shop and finding that the coffee shop is still there. I had a clear memory of sitting on that sofa in Ocean City Maryland reading The Secret Adversary, and thinking I wonder if that coffee shop is still there. And being 2009, I had the tools at my disposal.

So I have read 32 Agatha Christie books in about 12 months. At that rate, I should be done this project (and able to read other fiction) sometime in late fall of 2012.

The latter half of the 30s features two Christie most famous books Death on the Nile and Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None. She is in her late 40s here and really in her prime.

(1935) Murder in Three Acts
Ah, one I haven't read before. Satterthwaitte reappears, as does Hercule Poirot.

One of the lead characters, Sir Charles, a retired actor (of the stage), is a quite well fleshed out as a character.

We finally got a tiny bit of backstory on Poirot who tells Satterthwaite that we was born into a large poor family and had to make his own way in the world. He entered the police force and worked his way up, gained some renown, and finally retired. The war happened, he was injured (I suppose as a citizen not as a soldier) and then left Belgium for refuge in England (which was the set-up for the Mysterious Affair at Styles, Christie's first book. He solves the rich woman's murder and then becomes a celebrated and highly paid personal detective for rich people. He has now made his fortune. Still no mention of any wife or children.

I was actually getting jaded of the project before reading this book, but it, and the ones after, have been so good, I'm back fully committed. In her mid 40s, Christie is really firing on a cylinders. She has also improved greatly as a writer.

(1935) Death in the Clouds
Wow another one I haven't read before. Planes, still a novelty, were featured in two other Christie books so far. P and H take one to France in The Big Four. The salary man looking for adventure takes on in Mr. Paker Pyne, Detective. A good mystery involving a blow pipe, which comes back to haunt her. She really didn't research how large a blow pipe is, and how impractical it would be to have one on a plane.

One of the characters takes something called a Continental Baldwin out of his suitcase. 20 years ago, just what a Continental Baldwin was would have been a mystery. Was it a fancy pen? A portable typewriter? Or something else entirely? Even reading the whole book gives no context cues. Now thanks to Google, I know it is or was a schedule for trains in continental Europe. That's something even if you had a whole library at your disposal 20 years ago that you would unlikely be able to discover. Though I guess since it was a book, it might, might have been the card catalog.

(1935) The ABC Murders
Hastings and Poirot are back again. This time though Hastings explains that he was in England to personally look after some business for six months due to the bad economy while his wife remained in Argentina looking after the ranch. Poirot has moved from the Sherlock Holmes style rooms at a lodging house to a modern apartment building. Poirot seems to allow Hastings to stay there. Hastings remains pretty much an idiot. It still remains unclear why Poirot and Hastings are friends.

I have a memory of reading this as a teenager at the swim club during summer vacation. It was bit fantastical, but I seemed to have liked that as teenager.It's still rather fantastical, but I like that less now that I'm older. Still a good read, and rather well plotted, but a little far fetched. Like The Big Four (1924), I liked this one way more the first time around.

Christie was really cranking on cylinders at this point. Plots are solid, characters are well made.

(1936) Murder in Mesopotamia

This one is set before Murder on the Orient Express, explaining Poirot's presence in that part of the world. This is a good one utilizing Christie's trips to archaeological digs in Iraq. It was one of these trips that she met her second husband, Max. The characters are well crafted.

(1936) Cards on the Table
In this book, a rich weird-o invites four detectives and four killers to a bridge party. Unknowing to them, he "collects" killers. He invites the detectives to appreciate his collection. He winds up dead during the party. The detectives are Poirot, Colonel Race (making another appearance after a decade), Superintendent Battle (a bit character in loads of Christie books both with and without Poirot), and Ariadne Oliver, a female mystery writer who is based on Christie herself. It's a good read.

(1937) Poirot Loses a Client
I don't recall reading this one before. Great premise: a letter gets mailed to Poirot months after the writer has died. Was the writer paranoid or was she murdered? Great mix of characters and a somewhat complicated but believable plot. Hastings is back. He seems to have moved back to England permanently and has his own place and owns a car. His wife isn't mentioned.

(1937) Murder in the Mews
Another that I hadn't read before. I have learned that a mews is a street of stables. One of the row was converted to a residence (cars are displacing horses rapidly here) and the occupant is found murdered. Poirot winds up being involved.

(1937) Death on the Nile
I saw the movie in the theater way back in the day but never read the book. The copy I have is a slightly fancy paperback, but normal shape, not the oversized version, with lots of empty pages to make it look classier. It even has a forward by Christie where she says the book is one of her favorites.

It's a great book. Well drawn characters, great motivations for the characters, and a great plot. Colonel Race is back as well as Poroit. The movie made me want to take a cruise down the Nile some day. The book still makes me want to.

(1938) Appointment with Death
A week before reading the book, Maureen and I watched this on Masterpiece Mystery. For some reason Masterpiece/BBC usually radically rewrites the plot when converting a Agatha Christie book to a movie. Not merely combining characters to make a novel fit into a 90 minute film, they go as far as to switch detectives, change eras, switch murderers, or keep the murderer and switch motives. I don't get why they would do such a thing. On the plus side, it means that any I've watched on TV won't ruin the book for me since they are so radically different.

The book takes place somewhere in the Middle East, a day or two's drive out of Jerusalem. I imagine there are highways now and it's much quicker to get this impressive place.

(1938) A Holiday for Murder aka Murder for Christmas
I read this one during the 1993 Xmas holidays, which seems appropriate back then. I was working the cubical job and had 5 years in by that time, which meant 3 weeks of vacation per year. If you took 4 days off between Xmas and New Years, with 1/2 days, holidays and 4 weekend days, you could be out of the office for almost two weeks. Nearly two long, wonderful, amazing weeks, spent mostly at home. It was a great time to start and finish a novel. One bad thing about working for yourself, you don't get almost 2 weeks of no responsibilities. I do get a little time most days to sit and read in my garden though, so as with most things, it's a trade off.

The book still had/has a holiday greeting to riders from SEPTA. I left it in there as a time capsule. I remembered the story, but not the ending. The ending was a mild surprise to me, but it seemed very fair that I could have guessed it.

(1939) Easy to Kill aka Murder is Easy
I read this one before. Christie takes a break from Poirot here. Christie in prior books, as fictional mystery novelist Mrs. Oliver, complains about her foreign detective. She was also known to mention dislike him in interviews. Strange should she should have written so many Poirot books in a row if she disliked him that much. The one features a middle-aged former policeman who has retired and returned to England after years in the Malay Straights. This is another really solid one. Clues to the murder are well placed but not too obvious. Well paced.

(1939) Ten Little Indians aka And Then There Were None
Another break from Poirot. I remember reading this one for high school English class. It was one of the few books I actually read for that class, yet somehow I passed all the test and the class. The others I bluffed/guessed my way through the tests. It was a quick fun read back then. It still is.

(1939) The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories
Back in the day writers could make a good buck writing short stories. This is a collection I assume of previously published short stories featuring Poirot, Parker Pine and Marple. Good stuff, a quick read. One of the rare ones I hadn't read before.

Sorry that this was pretty dry post.