Sunday, May 22, 2011

Reading the Dame Part4a: The first half of the 1950s

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 (especially as that was just getting repetitive) but my middle-aged musings inspired by reading (or in some cases re-reading) these books.

The other parts of the series:
Reading th 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
Reading the Dame Part3b: The second half of the 1940s

There are 9 books in the segment. Though several are compilations of short stories, this is still a sort of a productive spell for her, For this segment she is between the ages of 60 and 64.

As usual my text for each book will discuss the book itself as well as other observations about the book that are not necessarily related to the story.

The 9 books in this segment were read between February and April 2011, which seems to be faster than usual rate for me.

1950 A Murder is Announced
In 1950 the bar that would become The Grey Lodge Pub opened its doors for the first time on Labor Day Weekend. The Phillies went to the World Series for the first time in a long time (and wouldn’t return for about 30 years). Television still doesn’t really exist. The world would really start changing soon, but not yet.

England is still experiencing wartime rationing and Christie uses this and the change in village life after WWII to good effect here. I mostly figured out the mystery. A very satisfying read.

1950 Three Blind Mice and Other Stories
A bunch of short stories dating from the late 1940s back to the 20s. Curiously the stories appear to presented in reverse order of publication. There are a few stories with one-off characters, two with Marple, three with Poirot, and one with Satterthwaite. I suspect this will be Satterthwaite’s last appearance.

Hastings is a narrator of one of the Poirots (they go that far back). In that story Hastings narrates “After completing an elaborate outdoor toilet, we set off for Netherall Road”. They were in Poirot’s rooms in London. I know toilet can mean basic washing up and personal hygiene. Knowing all of that I can’t fathom what “an elaborate outdoor toilet” in 1920s London could possibly mean. It seemed to have no bearing on the story and remains a mystery to me. I didn’t even try Googling “outdoor toilet” since I know outhouses would be the only result.

In one of the older stories, Christie comes back to pince-nez. Since 1920 Christie’s characters, if they were noted as wearing glasses, always wore pince-nez. I remember reading Christie as a teen who had barely passed a couple years of high school French deducing pince-nez were earpiece-less glasses that pinched the nose to stay on. By the late 40s Christie had stopped mentioning pince-nez. Before then at least one character per book had worn pince-nez. As of 1950, she has yet mention modern eyeglasses.

1951 They Came to Baghdad
Christie returns to a theme she mined well in the 1920s, a young couple find themselves in the middle of a global domination conspiracy. The difference is Christie sets it up with real mastery and subtlety. The year is 1950, WWII is over and the Cold War has begun. The book sets off with several very well developed characters separately making their way to Baghdad, where the president of the USA is to meet with communist leader. This book really excited me as I started reading it and the pieces of the story were being laid out. After the really great build-up the ending felt a little rushed and anti-climatic. And I am not fully sure that the plot holds up but it is a great read.

Eyeglasses are mentioned here yet one character does wear pince-nez.

1951 The Under Dog and Other Stories
After reading a book set in 1950, I found myself with a collection of Poirot stories written in the 1920s but not published in book form until 1951. It’s good to have Poirot back after several non-Poirot books. Christie’s 1920s upper class bias unwelcomingly appears almost immediately. It has been very interesting to watch Christies snobbery slip away as the years and novels have worn on.

1952 Mrs McGinty's Dead
Poriot is asked by a police inspector friend to look into a closed case of murder in a small village. The inspector isn’t sure he got the right guy and wants to be sure before the execution in three weeks. This is another great and satisfying read. The characters are well developed and the clues are there.

My edition of this book was published in the late 1970s right after Christie’s death. Many of the Christie paperbacks I got from the library then were published at that time and had similar covers. There’s a circle of with Poirot’s head on the front cover at top center. The back cover is black, containing some boilerplate text in white and a blurb about the particular book. At the lower right is a picture of Poirot with “HAVE YOU READ CURTAIN? IT WAS MY LAST CASE...” To this date, I have yet to read Curtain, despite seeing mentioned on the back of all those paperbacks I read in the late 1970s/early 1980s. I have always saved Curtain as the last Poirot book I would read. That day is coming. It won’t be very soon, but it’s coming. Actually the last Marple book (which I also haven’t read yet) was published after the last Poirot book, so Curtain won’t be the last Christie book I’ll read, but it does remain the far off end of the journey. As I write this in April of 2011, after reading 58 Christie books, I am 19 books away from Curtain and 21 books way from goal.

I started this one in Philadelphia and finished it in Munich.

1952 Murder with Mirrors
This one features Miss Marple, who at a friend’s request accepts an arranged invitation from the friend’s sister. All three went to school together some 50 years ago. It takes place on an estate near London that has been turned into a school for juvenile delinquents. This a good story and ending is pretty much as I expected. Once again, strong well developed characters.

Spectacles are mentioned and one character wears pinc-nez. No one vouchesafes.

My copy was published in 1973. It’s very 70s. The front cover has curves and pinks and oranges. The cover has a picture of middle aged guy in a suit, a young blonde nestled with a long haired guy holding a gun, and Miss Marple who appears to be adjusting a thermostat. The long haired guy on the cover seems to be trying to make this book from 1952 seem to be from 1973 and new rather than 20 years old. It was a very strange cover but actually one of the best. Usually the covers are particularly uninspired.

I read this one in Munich and Bamberg Germany.

1953 Funerals are Fatal
As my copy of this book is part of a hard cover triology, trying to travel light, I didn’t pack it for the Germany trip. Leapfrogging over it, to read when I got home. This is a great read. Many characters, all very well drawn, and still stick with me despite have read two other Christie books before writing this summary. A great mix of characters, old and young, rich and less so. Christie also finds some novel ways to use Poirot.

1953 A Pocket Full of Rye
The note inside tells me I read this in July of 2005. Maureen and I also watched a TV movie version in the last few years. With all that, I didn’t remember who did it. Christie is still at the top of her game here. Solid characters, well places clues, and Miss Marple herself is the right balance. I thought the murder was someone else, but was satisfied with the reveal.

My copy is a grey market one that I likely bought in the 1980s at a book store in Center City. The front cover has been ripped off. Rather than make retailers send back unsold copies for credit, the publishers have them mail back just the cover, saving on shipping costs. The retailer was then supposed to dispose of the remainder of the book. However these coverless copies would find their way into stores to be sold 2 or 3 for a dollar.

I read this one in Bamberg and Munich Germany, finishing it up here in Philadelphia.

1954 Destination Unknown
Neither Marple nor Poirot appear in this one, which is a sort of Big Four meets The Man the Brown Suit throwback. Big Four and The Man the Brown Suit are two of Christie’s first novels, written when was in her early 30s. Destination Unknown was written 30 years later. The theme of the well funded global clandestine conspiracy is back though a bit less improbable and less sensational, both of which make for a better read. The global conspiracy is combined with the well described exotic locations of Brown Suit. I definitely want to visit many of the exotic places Christie used a backdrops in many of her books (South Africa, Morocco, Egypt). I wonder how much they have changed in 60 or 90 years and how many of the old hotels still exist. Maybe that’s a future project.