Summer reading roundup: Part One

Posted: September 11, 2014 in Agatha Christie, Book Awards, Czechoslovakia, Edgar Awards, England, Golden Age of detective fiction, review

photo 3_2During an eventful summer I read six crime fiction books that I haven’t reviewed as yet. I will say a few words about each of them, and possibly expand on that if the more recent books are shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger, or the Petrona Award next year. 

Agatha Christie isn’t the most widely published author of all time for nothing. Reading her books is relaxing and takes you into a different world away from the many worries of 21st Century life. I read two of Agatha’s novels; The Secret of Chimneys from 1925, and Crooked House from 1949.

The Secret of Chimneys [1925] is truly evocative of its age with some politically incorrect xenophobia, and a plot involving jewel thieves, Balkan spies, glamourous seductive flappers, maids, butlers, and amiable young men at the Foreign Office. 

Bill Eversleigh was an extremely nice lad. He was a good cricketer and a scratch golfer, he had pleasant manners, and an amiable disposition, but his position at the Foreign Office had been gained, not by brains, but by good connexions.

If you read between the lines Agatha Christie was a great observer of people, and even as early in her writing career as 1925 some of her commentary on the ruling class is very much to the point.

On the sideboard were half a score of heavy silver dishes, ingeniously kept hot by patent arrangements.

‘Omelet,’ said Lord Caterham, lifting each lid in turn.’ Eggs and bacon, kidneys, devilled bird, haddock, cold ham, cold pheasant. I don’t like any of these things, Tredwell. Ask the cook to poach me an egg, will you?

‘Very good , my lord.’

The plot is ridiculous, the thriller element unbelievable, the characters are stereotypes, but above all  it is frivolous fun and escapism so one can almost excuse the references to a dago, and this sort of tosh:

‘Herman Isaacstein. The representative of the syndicate I spoke to you about.’

‘The all-British syndicate?’

‘Yes. Why?’ ‘

Nothing-nothing-I only wondered, that’s all. Curious names these people have.’

That is how it was in 1925 and for many years after. Trying to sanitise historical attitudes by for example removing the n- word from Mark Twain, or taking out the anti-Semitism from many of the Golden Age writers will blind us to far more serious present day problems. photo

Crooked House [1949] is a far superior novel, a classic country house mystery with a dysfunctional family, an elderly victim of a poisoning, Aristide Leonides, [how Christie loved her poisons] and some well drawn characters. Aristide, a Greek, originally came from Smyrna and his elderly sister-in-law does on one occasion refer to him as a dago, but otherwise the book won’t offend as much as the earlier work. 

The Crooked House is lived in by Aristide, and his much younger second wife Brenda.

Aristide’s grown up children by his first wife, Philip and his wife Magda, an actress, who have three children, Sophia engaged to our hero Charles Hayward, and the younger Eustace and Josephine. Roger and his wife Clemency, who don’t have any children. Roger runs Aristide’s business now. Aristide had settled large amounts of money on his children, and everyone in the house appears to be financially very comfortable.

The younger children have a tutor Laurence Brown, who may or may not be having an affair with Brenda. There is also Edith de Haviland, sister of the first Mrs Leonides, and Nannie an elderly retainer who looks after Josephine. 

As Chief Inspector Taverner exclaims-

“Everybody in the damned house had a means and opportunity. What I want is a motive.”

The plot is taut with an ending in which Agatha Christie once again does something completely unconventional. A very good read.

The third English crime fiction book I read this summer was by coincidence The Riddle of The Third Mile [1983] by Colin Dexter.

I have to admit that I found this novel a little hard going. I think the author’s plot twists are a bit too clever for me, and I have come to the conclusion that his reputation does owe a lot to the brilliant acting in the TV series by John Thaw as Morse and Kevin Whately as Lewis. The complexity of this plot blending Oxford Dons, an unidentifiable body with no head or hands, exam results, the college vacation, tooth abscesses, strip clubs, prostitutes and removal firms had me slightly confused for a little while, but then so was Morse.

Back in Morse’s office, Lewis launched into his questions: ‘It’s pretty certainly Brown-Smith’s body, don’t you think, sir?’  

‘Don’t know.’

‘But surely-‘

‘I said I don’t bloody know!’ 

The Riddle of The Third Mile was a good read, although the theme of feuding dons seemed a little repetitive, possibly because I have watched too many episodes of the TV series. 

[Summer reading roundup to be continued]     

  1. One of the pleasures of reading AC is because she reflects the views of the time, to sanitise them would mean losing a whole aspect of the reading experience.

  2. Oh Norman how glad I am to read your thoughts on Mr Dexter – so glad to know I am not the only one to think his writing’s popularity has benefited greatly from the work of John Thaw and the writers of those screenplays too. I’ve been meaning to feature him in one of Book vs Adaptation posts but feared I might get lynched or something for daring to suggest that a TV version is a significant improvement…maybe now I’ll be brave

  3. kathy d. says:

    Well, everyone has to have their own opinion about the authors and books they’ve written, and make their own decisions about what they will tolerate or not.
    It’s good that you enjoyed these books.
    I stopped reading Christie’s books when I was 19 as I realized the anti-Semitism and xenophobia.
    This was offensive to me as someone whose relatives fled czarist anti-Semitic pogroms; they and my Irish relatives were all immigrants. They all faced discrimination, but especially my Jewish relatives.
    And there is so much else to read, with gigantic and daunting TBR lists, I am set for a few centuries.
    It’s too bad about this. I’d like to enjoy some of her mysteries, but take offense at these sentiments.
    I think what others have to think about is how this language offends people. It’s not just an intellectual exercise. Words are used as part of discriminatory practices and policies — and they do demean and hurt people.
    The Internet is rife with commentary about Christie’s views and those of Dorothy Sayers, too.
    Also, while I think Mark Twain was a pretty progressive guy, as I think of King Leopold’s Soliloquy, if one thinks of African-American youth reading a book with racist words said over 120 times, how does that work? Authors, academics and educators speak over here about the harm to self-esteem that does to young people, and why current books in today’s curricula avoid this.
    I think readers have to think about the impact of these words.

  4. kathy d. says:

    One other point: We all live in the real world, not in the hallowed halls of academia. Over here, racism and anti-immigrant views are big problems here. And anti-Semitism is real, too.
    Everyone has to work to overcome this over here, media, organizations, educators, faith-based figures, etc.

  5. Margot Kinberg says:

    Norman – I agree with you that Crooked House is one of Christie’s really fine efforts. Glad you had the chance to read it. And I agree with you that it wouldn’t be right to change what Christie wrote. While I don’t like ‘isms’ any more than anyone else does, they were a part of the times in which she wrote. What’s more, I think you’re right that we need to focus on some of the serious issues we face today…

  6. kathy d. says:

    Serious issues of the day over here are very much still reflected in Christie’s books, and even more so now than for years. This aren’t over.

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