Tag Archives: Agatha Christie

The Body in the Library – Agatha Christie

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Some days, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, of the village of St. Mary Mead, is the only remedy for the clamoring global village we inhabit. They serve tea in her world. And they converse. And she solves every glimmer of a crime, of course, without batting an eye or missing a cream scone. So The Body in the Library was the perfect read for today.  The body, a young strangulation victim with dyed blond hair and chewed fingernails, turns up in the morning as the servants pull back the drapes in the library of a friend of Miss Marple. Lucky for the annals of crime. It’s a bit more comfy-shabby than Downton Abbey but the whole servant-local-gossip-our-kind-of-people thing is very much in evidence. So are a few telling clues that our sweet sharp-eyed sleuth spots promptly while everyone else is dithering about being official.

Can’t spoil this for anyone who likes Christie and hasn’t read it yet. But it’s safe to say that there is more than one body; there are numerous, logical suspects; social systems get slightly but never fatally deconstructed; and Miss Marple’s powers of deduction are formidable, as ever. The characters are either caricatures or incredibly shallow and insubstantial but that’s not why you were reading this murder mystery in the first place, is it? The plot is as tangled as a runaway ball of yarn–the motive is anyway–but Jane Marple remains undaunted and unravels the mess without breaking a sweat.

In the end, crime solved, justice served, and probably tea, too. It would be nice to have a shelf of unread Christie murder mysteries lined up, like a supply of Xanax, to blunt the sharp edges of too much real life. Real life is occasionally this theatrical and lethal–but never this neat.  

The Body in the Library: A Miss Marple Mystery (Miss Marple Mysteries)   Agatha Christie | Signet  2000

Midnight in Austenland – Shannon Hale

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Shannon Hale writes funny, sharp YA books so Midnight in Austenland held real promise of being entertaining. It was a trip. A key to this weird stumble down the rabbit hole is in the novels Hale cites as part of her research: Rebecca, The Haunting of Hill House, Jane Eyre, a lot of Agatha Christie and Northhanger Abbey. Toss in a little chicklit, too, I’m guessing, for good measure. But not too much. Hers isn’t a ditzy, designer-label heroine–just a confused one. When Charlotte Kinder, the divorced mother of two barely adolescent kids, decides to thaw her frozen heart on a Jane Austen re-enactment vacation she expects pre-scripted nineteenth-century romance, not bloody murder. But bloody–actually bloodless–murder is what she gets.

Charlotte can’t get past the calculating, cheating, cold fish who replaced her non-theatening husband and then moved out to marry his girlfriend, Justice. That’s a name? Even hippies didn’t name their kids Justice–but it may signify the comeuppance James Kinder is due, if only Charlotte will open her eyes and see him for who he really is. She has some trouble with that (see name: Kinder) so off to England and an estate called Pembroke Park and a brooding actor named Mallery who is assigned to court her in the Austen manner and propose at a fancy ball on her last night in the costume drama. Living in a Jane Austen novel should take her mind off things.

From the beginning, the story lurches a bit immodestly from the corsets and crumpets world Charlotte has entered to random recollections from her past that conveniently explain her present neuroses. You have to pay attention–but it’s okay because there are some funny lines and a certain vertigo involved in vacationers adopting Regency personas. The kids, when Charlotte slips off to a nearby inn to check in with them by cell phone, are adjusting too well to vacation with dad and the new step-mom, who sounds like a clueless jerk on the phone. The parlour game of murder awakens Charlotte’s childhood fears of the dark and gives her something to really be afraid of. Despite her inadvertant creation of a wildly successful online gardening and landscape architecture business, Charlotte has about as much self-confidence as a limp rag–her necessary character arc is pretty obvious. The girl has issues but so does everyone else in the game.

Almost immediately, she is convinced there has been a real murder and sets out to uncover proof, endangering herself–or maybe just intensifying the trappings of the theater that surrounds her. Did she see a dead hand in a secret room, or was it a clue? Is someone from the household missing and are those tire tracks going from the house to a pond in the woods? Cars are not allowed anywhere near the estate and stables, so whose tire tracks might those be? How does the celebrity-in-disguise maintain such a perfect illusion of a consumption victim, complete with gray pallor, episodes of shaking and sweating and frequent retirements to her room? Are Mallery’s fervent protestations of love part of the script or is he for real? Why does her “brother,” another of the actors, always seem to have her back? Who set the fire that destroyed a charming cottage at the edge of the property?

Charlotte spends half her time hunting murderers and the other half hunting for her authentic self. She is desperate to fall in love–just for two weeks–but she doubts everything. After a while, you do, too. When are these people speaking as themselves? Ever? Never? Right up to the end I expected to have the curtain pulled back and the pupptmasters revealed. Midnight in Austenland is crazier than that, though. The real stuff is as fantastical as anything Austen would have dreamed up–more, in fact, as Austen made high art of the most ordinary quotidian and Hale treats the most improbable events as commonplace.

It was an amusing read, witty in spots, consistently superficial, but madcap as a comedy of manners, claustrophobic as a country cozy, not convincingly gothic, and wrapped up expertly in the final chapter and the helpful epilogue. It’s not The Princess Academy but a kind of grown-up fairytale with a sort of a princess who survives long enough to do the happily-ever-after bit  at the end.  

Midnight in Austenland: A Novel   Shannon Hale | Bloomsbury USA  2012

Appointment with Death – Agatha Christie

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British tourists in Jerusalem and the ruins of Petra are Agatha Christie’s players in Appointment with Death. Hercule Poirot hangs around for part of the action—mostly to eavesdrop on a murderous conversation and then to step in and grill everyone after the body is discovered. Christie goes for the mentally aberrant in this one—a truly horrid matriarch dominates a pathetically submissive family who are all going crazy trying to jump through her hoops. The woman is sadistic and a psychiatrist and a newly minted medical doctor on the tour are transfixed by her toxic machinations.

Add an overbearing lady politician, her timid and uncertain sidekick, a racist tour guide, a handful of abused porters and servers and a few love interests and you’ve cooked up a peppery mensaf, a classic Jordanian stew. If mama is a monster, despondent siblings are plotting her demise, baby sister is slipping into madness and the whole social scene is a bit sick, who dies, who kills them and who gets the family fortune? Poirot is not fooled for an instant by this simplistic calculation. He knows, as he always does, that motives can be as hidden and surprising as the murder weapons.

Lots of arch vernacular, more than a little type casting, plenty of clandestine objectives, furtive comings and goings and some spectacular theater keep this vintage detective novel from seeming too dated. Agatha Christie is fun to read and Poirot is a worthy opponent to match wits with, although he’ll be quicker and cleverer than you are every time.

Appointment with Death: A Hercule Poirot Mystery (Hercule Poirot Mysteries)   Agatha Christie | Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers (first copyright 1937)

A Caribbean Mystery – Agatha Christie

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Miss Marple gets around—but she drags her portmanteau of closed societies spilt open by most puzzling murders with her. So, when Agatha Christie sends Jane Marple to the Caribbean, trouble is bound to follow. Maybe it would be fairer to say that, in A Caribbean Mystery, the redoubtable Miss Marple is sharp-eyed enough to catch what lesser mortals miss—mortality in its most unnatural guise.

This island resort, a panacea for arthritis, rheumatism, and the respiratory distress of a gloomy British winter, is as small a stage as any village. Every character is tainted with suspicion and scrutinized by the practiced eye of a little old amateur detective who is easily bored. She knits. She engages in and suffers through polite conversation. She sees plot, motive and conspiracy in the banal—and, of course, she is absolutely correct.

But the mystery of the killer is as tangled as Miss Marple’s yarn and Christie spins a lively yarn in the untangling of it. There are bodies—some violently managed and some that appear to have slipped the bonds of the living unharmed. Hah. Jane Marple’s antennae are madly waving throughout and no one is safe from her prying, poking and perceptive gaze.

There are drugs—a lot of drugs. Most of them are prescription but not always administered to those for whom they were prescribed. There is a fair amount of wandering around in the tropical moonlight and much of it isn’t the least romantic. Romance is calculated and the resort is one big couples swap beneath its façade. Fatal cases of mistaken identity, malicious cases of false identity and a muddle of confusion in which the killer hides in plain sight can’t stump Miss Marple in the end.

She saves the day but her knitting productivity suffers, as does her vacation reading. Oh well, plenty of time for reading when she returns home—until her next turn as the village busybody who exposes evildoers with a prodigious amount of snooping and a minimum of fuss.

A Caribbean Mystery: A Miss Marple Mystery (Miss Marple Mysteries)  Agatha Christie | Signet   2000