Monday, January 24, 2011

Reading the Dame Part3b: The second half of the 1940s

Reading the Dame Part3b: The second half of the 1940s

This a continuation of my series of posts about my project to read all 80 something Agatha Christie mystery books in order of publication (more or less). As usual, this is not just summaries of Christie’s work but my middle-aged musings inspired by reading (or in some/many cases re-reading) these books.

The other parts of the series:
Reading the Dame Part 1: The 1920s
Reading the Dame Part 2a: The 1930s
Reading the Dame Part 2b: The 1930s continued
Reading the Dame Part 3a: The 1940s

Christie is in her mid 50s at this point. She has slowed down to about 1 novel per year. At this point as a professional author, she was probably limited by her publisher to just one book per year to maximize global sales per novel. Whereas a less popular author could muddy the marketplace a little bit since his/her potential audience would be much smaller. I believe Stephen King ran into this problem in the 1980s.

She also didn’t have to work as hard at this point. In the 20s and 30s, she was writing as much as possible to make money. I wrote this sentence after only reading the first of the six books in this section, it will be interesting to see if this slower pace results in increased quality replacing quantity. The answer turned out to be yes, less quantity did equal higher quality.

It took me two months to read the six books that make up this segment. That’s pretty fast reading on my part. I guess I had a little more downtime with the holidays plus we went to Vegas for 5 nights for Maureen’s 40th birthday (which became six nights). To my knowledge I had only read two of the six previously, which puts me below average. For whatever reason the books from this segment weren’t as available to me when I was younger. Or didn’t interest me enough to check them out of the library.

1945 Sparkling Cyanide
Another WWII era novel with no acknowledgement of the war. Christie again plays around with the structure of what a mystery novel can be with this one. It starts with various people thinking back on a tragic night, sort of a Rashomon thing (or whatever the Shakespeare original that Rashomon is based on, King Lear maybe. If you want to know, you can Google it).

More rich people.

Col. Race reappears for this one. As someone who thought I knew Christie’s work very well, it is interesting to see how major of a character he was, and often he recurred. That said, he is not the most interesting of characters. Sort of cool, but like Poirot somewhat underdrawn. Inspector Kemp replaces the retired Inspector Battle. After finally developing Battle into a real character in Towards Zero, she retires him. It’s as though she liked her detectives to be underdrawn.

The story has a very clever ending. Though I’m not sure it really holds up upon closer thought.

1946 The Hollow
Wow this is Christie really firing on all cylinders. The set-up is much the usual, a doctor, an actress, old money rich people, a country estate. It should be old hat by now, but she finds a lot of freshness. The characters are extremely well developed, their motives are interesting. The ending is rock solid and ties back to the beginning. Very tidy bit of writing. This was another first time read for me, as was Sparkling Cyanid.

The other title this one went by is Murder After Hours, which makes no sense to me in relation to the story.

This is the second book in a row that has an unfaithful husband who ultimately realizes how much he loves his wife. I know Christie’s second husband married his reported longtime mistress after her death. I will definitely need to read a biography about her when I’m finished this project.

1947 The Labours of Hercules
I recall reading this one during a Christmas break when I was in high school. Poirot decides to retire again and to take on a few select cases to end his career. The rub is that he will only accept cases that recreate his mythical namesake’s labors, the Labors of Hercules. It also allows Christie to do that trick she loved where she gets a novel length book from a bunch of loosely connected short stories.

The collection of related short stories format doesn’t make for a tightly woven novel, but Christie does a great job turning the laborious constraint into some clever stories with a modern twist on the ancient lore. Some of the stories are easy to figure out, some are surprise endings.

Drugs play a part in at least two of the stories. Drugs were a frequent theme in Christie’s work from the 1920s. Would seem as though a different generation of English upper class society rediscovered drugs in the 1940s, especially cocaine.

1948 There is a Tide...
According to my note on the inside cover, I read this book in July of 1982, almost 29 years ago. The receipt still inside shows I paid 50 cents for it used from the now long defunct Marlo Books in the Roosevelt Mall.

This book has moved with me 4 times and only has now been read a second time. While I mostly like having a collection of books, it does seem a little silly to have carted this so little used object with me for almost 30 years. I often think about the nature of “stuff” and how much of it now is getting obsolete, in this case with the advent of e-books. I doubt I could get the electronic version of this for 50 cents again, or for free which I did by merely taking it off my book shelf. I expect someday there will be a Netflix of e-books where you pay a monthly subscription and get to have three e-books out at a time. When that day comes, I suspect I will get rid off most of my books, without much angst or sentiment. Just like how I disposed of my LPs when I moved to CDs, and got rid of cassette tapes when I finally got a car with a CD player. My collection of VHS tapes is still taking up space in my house, but I suspect I will get rid of those fairly soon. The conversion of entertainment media from space taking objects to electronic nothingness is very liberating. I embrace it. With everything being available electronically on demand, less is more and better.

I didn’t really recall any of the story after 29 years. This is another stellar work by Christie. Poirot is brought into this one that features rich folks who have their meal ticket cut off. It’s very firmly set at the end of WWII, with the English equivalent of a WAV or WAC returning from war overseas to her farmer fiancee who was exempted from service to keep growing food. Ration books are mentioned.

All of the clues are there, but I didn’t put them together correctly. A very satisfying ending to the mystery even if I didn’t solve it. The romantic ending is a bit shocking though.

1948 The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories
Based by the copyright years listed in the front, this book is a collection short stories that had been published seemingly at a regular clip over 20 years. Unlike other collections of short stories, this one has no overarching theme that lightly connects all the story. This trick of Christie’s really wasn’t all that great and is not missed here. Various mysteries, all very well told, with some that really stick with you after reading them. Poirot appears in the last story, but otherwise the stories all feature one-off characters.

Interestingly none of the stories have real sense of a place in time. Twenty years made no difference in the setting or telling of the tales. This is not a knock, just something I only just realized. Anyway this is Christie in top form, a great read.

1949 Crooked House
This one is also very firmly set at the end of the War. A couple who met overseas while in military service reunite after the war in London and become formally engaged. Ration books are mentioned. Once again the setting is rich folks living in a big house. Christie’s ability to mine this same vein while keeping things interesting and readable is extremely impressive. All new characters for this one; all are very well fleshed out. The ending was a surprise to me. There were at least two glaring clues, and I missed them.

So this ends the 1940s. She was born in 1890, so she spent this decade in her 50s. She published 15 books in those 10 years. Late middle age shows her remaining at the peak of her mental abilities. Writingwise she is at the top of her game.

Now having read all of her World War II era output, her lack of references to the war, with the exception of the Tommy and Tuppance novel early in the war, becomes clearer She had worked as a nurse and pharmacist in London during the war. World War I was hell on the troops, stuck in the muddy trenches as modern war machinery made continued use of long established “military science” a pointless bloodbath. World War II while still horrific for the soldiers, was also very much a homeland war in Europe with civilians bearing the brunt of bombings on a daily basis. It makes sense that Christie living the reality of war day and night would escape in her writing to a time without war.

Onto the 1950s...