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Saturday, 30 September 2017

Mini reviews #6

The Man in the Queue (1929) by Gordon Daviot (Joesephine Tey). Tey’s first detective novel, featuring Inspector Alan Grant, and her most conventional. A rather feeble man queues patiently at the theatre and suddenly drops down dead, a stiletto lodged in his back. Grant, who is both a policeman and a gentleman amateur, calls on his colourful network of allies to track down the guilty party. Great fun, and the series only gets better.

Crime in Lepers’ Hollow (1952) by George Bellairs. Inspector Littlejohn is on hoiliday, at something of a loose end – but not for long. Soon he is mixed up in a murder and embroiled in a family saga. I found the book okay; it’s relatively dark and relatively readable, and has all the eccentricities we might expect from Bellairs. But it’s not one of his best, perhaps because of the very slow start.

Detectionary (1977), edited by Otto Penzler, Chris Steinbrunner, and Marvin Lachman. This is a really useful resource, listing and describing major characters, writers, titles, and adaptations. Sadly, it is not exhaustive, and I don’t believe it’s been updated, but it’s still thoroughly useful. And it’s interesting – it’s strange to see which characters were considered major and which were not, forty years ago.

The Back Passage (2006) by James Lear. A gay erotic tribute to the country house mystery. Set in the 1920s and replete with secret passages (ho ho ho), class stereotypes, and petites morts. While it sounds like a fun idea, the author isn’t quite able to merge the crime plot with erotic elements, so the two strands of the novel jar with one another. This is a shame, because in his ‘straight’ gay novels, written as Rupert Smith, he manages to synchronise sex and plot very well.

The Spectrum of English Murder (2015) by Curtis Evans. This book explores the crime fiction of Henry Wade (Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher) and G.D.H. and Margaret Cole, who occupied firm positions on the right and the left of British politics respectively. Evans has an insightful and diligent approach, making his subjects come alive, and illuminating their under-valued crime fiction.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton

What is it about golden age mysteries set on trains? I have two theories. The first is my scholarly view: we have to put these 'transport mysteries' into context. The sealed transportation pods provide closed communities, but (vaguely) democratised ones -- think Murder on the Orient Express, where people from several continents and all walks of life are bound together and can't escape -- and they represent both closed space and spacelessness, especially when a vehicle travels internationally. In the interwar years, this is mass-communication and technology at its apex, hurtling towards an uncertain future that might or might not open up the world.

My second theory is much more mundane: I enjoy the complete disparity between how trains were and how they are. Third class carriages, attentive, class-conscious porters, smoking carriages, slipping the guard a banknote to get a whole section of the train to oneself, the very concept of climbing onto the roof... it's fascinating social history.

Death in the Tunnel (1936) was written by Miles Burton, a pseudonym of Cecil Street (he also wrote as John Rhode), one of the most prolific of the golden age novelists, who is just coming back into print with the British Library's Crime Classics series. It features Burton's well-to-do amateur sleuth, Desmond Merrion, and his sparring partner, the extremely limited Inspector Arnold.

Arnold is investigating the death of a wealthy baronet, who has apparently committed suicide on board a train, as it passed through a tunnel. Unconvinced that it is suicide, he calls on Merrion who, initially, fails to smell a rat and politely tells the Scotland Yard inspector to do one. But then Merrion is struck by the fact that the baronet seemed to be travelling without a ticket, and the faint whiff of rodent sets him on the trail of a murderer -- or murderers.

I enjoyed Death in the Tunnel, my first experience of Street's fiction, more than I expected to. Street has often been described as belonging to the 'humdrum' school and was often the butt of his fellow writers' quips because of a perceived earnest focus on plot over and above any form of engaging the reader: Nicholas Blake once wrote that Street tended to create 'ciphers in the place of characters'. And it's true that psychology doesn't enter into this book at all, beyond the question of Why would a very wealthy man commit suicide? He was rich! Obviously he didn't kill himself! There is, however, a very complex puzzle which is unravelled bit by bit so that it doesn't feel too complicated in the reading. It's amazing, really, how an impossible crime -- a real locked-room scenario -- gradually unfolds into one inevitable sequence of events.

The characters are stock figures and are introduced in very few words -- 'the chap appeared, round-faced, and betraying no marked symptoms of intelligence' -- whereupon they conform to type. When we meet 'a middle-aged man of morose disposition', we are not floored to find out that his name is Mr Bleak, and he doesn't perk up. Gladys Mitchell and Agatha Christie also sketched their characters in very few words, but they took great pleasure in playing with our expectations -- they knew that we would recognise a few traits and make certain presumptions, then be shocked to have those presumptions turned on their heads. Nothing is turned in Death in the Tunnel. Instead, events progress in a linear manner and characters do not progress at all. They are so many chess pieces.

There is, however, great fun to be had in the relationship between Desmond Merrion, with his unapologetically wild imagination, and the stolid, sensible Inspector Arnold. I found Merrion to be a nice twist on the upper-class amateur who tends to be overly scrupulous about evidence. Instead, he goes off on wild tangents and is happy to employ blind guess work, without feeling bound by his thesis. This horrifies Arnold, who nonetheless can't complain about the results.

Once Merrion has explained the solution to the puzzle, things happen very quickly. There is no subplot to tidy up, no romantic triangle to resolve, no running joke to wheel out. We are simply told that the guilty party faced the hangman.

I thoroughly enjoyed Death in the Tunnel and am looking forward to reading The Secret of High Eldersham (1931), published in the same series and dutifully lined up on my TBR shelf (which is a real, physical thing). Street/Rhode/Burton is hardly a neglected genius, but I'm very pleased to see him back in print.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Poison for Teacher by Nancy Spain

A few years ago, researching for my PhD on Agatha Christie and queer theory, I came across some entertainingly pithy reviews in a 1950s tabloid archive. The byline named Nancy Spain, which was a new name to me at the time, but from the flashy photograph and the fact that the reviewer was clearly supposed to be as big a deal as the reviewee, I decided to Google her.

There was little information online at the time, but over the years the name has stuck and I've garnered a working knowledge of Nancy Spain. A niece and biographer of the Mrs Beeton, she was an early media celebrity: a gossip columnist and a regular on television panel shows such as What's My Line? Spain cultivated a frothy, acerbic, camp persona, and lived relatively openly with another woman (Joan Werner Laurie, a founder of She Magazine). When the couple died in a plane crash in 1964, Spain's close friend Noel Coward said, 'It is cruel that all that gaiety, intelligence and vitality should be snuffed out when so many bores and horrors are left living.'

What I didn't know until recently was that Spain did not simply review detective novels; she wrote about ten. These include Death Goes on Skis (set in a resort called Schizo Phrenia) and books with titles that tell you everything you need to know about the tone: Murder Bless It, Cinderella Goes to the Morgue, Out, Damned Tot...

None of these is in print any more, but one is fairly easy to get hold of. Poison for Teacher (1949) was reissued in 1994 as part of Virago's Lesbian Landmarks series, making second-hand paperbacks easily obtainable. So I bought one for 37p and gave it a go.

Alison Hennegan's introduction makes clear why Spain's work has fallen out of print, and why it was a struggle to get this, her least problematic title, included in the series. Hennegan writes of 'apparently racist and anti-semitic attitudes' which pervade the text. She pulls out the old defence that these attitudes only appear in dialogue and therefore exist as satire above anything else, but I don't find any evidence in the text to support that reading. The well-trodden 'it's ironic' defence is an easy one that people use as a get-out-of-jail-free card when confronting their enjoyment of problematic texts, and I first noticed it when I was a theology student and my lecturers were trying to justify some of the more horrific elements of scripture.

So I'm not going to dwell on the racist, anti-semitic, and, in fact, homophobic character portraits here because they are not pleasant. If we can avoid these -- and there's no reason Spain can't be edited and reissued, as Wheatley has been -- then we can get down to the business of enjoying the campy narrative.

The mystery centres around an exclusive girls' school called Radcliff Hall (ho ho ho... the essence of camp humour is that the codes are easy to break but only 50% of straight people will recognise them as codes). The school's headmistress calls in two detectives, Miriam Birdseye and Natasha du Vivien.

Birdseye is a rather wonderful creation: based on Hermione Gingold, she's a gregarious, thrice-divorced burlesque dancer who 'keeps theatre hours', dispises children, and has a photographic memory. She also gets the best lines:
'I always used to tell my husband he was going mad,' [Miriam] said. 'In the end, he did,' she added triumphantly.
Only one character recognises Birdseye from her career on the stage -- a police sergeant who is sufficiently starstruck upon coming face to face with 'Miss Birdseye of Positively the End and Absolutely the Last or whatever them revues was called' to reveal a load of confidential information.

Natasha is a former-ballerina from Russia and she is just getting bored of her husband, a former wrestler who was the hero of previous novels.  She leaves Johnny du Vivien at the beginning of the book and sets up an agency with Miriam, called Birdseye et Cie. Their first client tells them that something is afoot at Radcliff Hall, and, to cut a long story short, our two heroes enrol as teachers, becoming quickly involved in a school play, with staff and students among the cast. A survey of golden age crime tells us that boarding school plays are lethal, and, sure enough, on opening night, one of the teachers dies on stage.

The investigation that follows centres around a randy doctor, some extremely petty teachers and parents, an utterly mundane detective novelist, and the usual round of irritating children who mostly keep out of things. The mundane detective novelist is rather interesting: he writes gripping, adventurous, puzzling plots but straight out refuses to believe that anything remotely surprising could ever happen in real life. And the doctor  despises him and all he stands for, providing the book's obligatory meta moment: 'I never read detective stories', he says. 'They appear to me to combine all the worst faults of the crossword puzzle and the Grand Guignol, with none of the compensations.'

If Spain is doing one thing, it is avoiding this diagnosis for her own novel.  I enjoyed her brutally laconic way with words. Here is how she introduces one character, Roger, who is blatantly gay and who has appeared in a previous book:
He was dressed as a young American with a white shirt and a hand-painted tie and a very nasty red-plush hat. It was the sort of hat that is left unsold in the shop windows in the Charring Cross Road. He had no socks on. He was staring gloomily at his lean brown ankles, crossed one over the other.
When Natasha decides that she simply has to catch the killer, it is not for orthodox reasons, but for aesthetic ones:
She was sick of enforced confessions and spectacular and unresolved endings. She wanted no more murderers committing suicide [...] Nothing short of the Old Bailey and a darling judge in a black cap would satisfy her. It is quite possible that Natasha hankered after a gracious appearance in the witness-box. Possibly in hyacinth blue. Yes, hyacinth blue would be exactly right for a witness for the Crown.
There is a definite focus on clothes in Poison for Teacher, and I would love to see what Clothes in Books might make of it. As a non-clothes-y reader, I can only say that reducing criminal justice to a 'darling' 'black cap' and a chance to be seen in 'hyacinth blue' adds the the spectacular campiness of the mystery.

And it is a mystery, but I haven't focussed much on that element because the pleasure of reading lies more in the wit than in the plot. In fact, although I read Poison for Teacher just three weeks ago, I had to scan the list of character names which graces the front page to remember who died and which of them dunit. All in all, Poison for Teacher is worth reading, and not taking too seriously, if you like old campiness, and if you happen to come across it. I think that's the best way to put it.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Mini reviews #5

Death on the Cherwell (1935) by Mavis Doriel Hay. A whodunit published in the same year as Sayers’ Gaudy Night and, like that novel, set in a fictional Oxford college for women. But unlike Gaudy Night, Death on the Cherwell might as well be set in a boarding school, and is riddled with every cliche that Sayers tried to fight. It’s cruel to compare a minor name to a titan, but given the timing, comparisons are inevitable, and Hay comes out of them much worse.

Deep Water (1957) by Patricia Highsmith. A loveless marriage in a small town provides the backdrop to an utterly chilling, sophisticated thriller with every ingredient that makes Highsmith the foremost voice in 1950s American disillusion. I have no idea why this fantastic novel is not better known.

The Last Woman in His Life (1970) by Ellery Queen. Extremely disappointing novel that is offensive both in terms of its content and its quality. Apparently this one was ghostwritten.

'Inside Story' (1993) by Colin Dexter. I genuinely — and unpopularly — think that Inspector Morse is at his best in short stories. This might have something to do with the author not trying so hard to write, or to plot. You’ve probably guessed the set-up from the title: a contained narrative holds the clues to the surrounding mystery. Recommended.

The Golden Age of Murder (2015) by Martin Edwards. A majestic history of crime fiction in its heyday, and essential reading for fans and scholars of the genre.

Friday, 22 September 2017

The Breakdown by B.A. Paris

A couple of months ago, Sophie Hannah wrote a piece for The Guardian describing her ‘top ten twists in fiction’. I was slightly embarrassed to have only read a couple of the books on the list, and, because I trust Sophie’s judgment implicitly, I immediately went out and bought all the books on the list that I hadn’t read. One of these was Behind Closed Doors (2016), the debut thriller of former financier and teacher B.A. Paris, who is English but based in France. It was that book that I opened up and devoured in one go. Quite simply, I couldn’t put it down.

Alan and I were on holiday, and when we had to go out for a pre-arranged dinner date, I got quite tetchy because I wanted to keep reading. I even cried out, apparently: ’This narrator’s husband has just taken her out to dinner and she nearly died! So I can’t leave the room!’ After a very nice, very tipsy dinner date, we stumbled back to the suite and made straight for the bedroom — where I picked up B.A. Paris where I’d left off.

A few days later, I took to Twitter to extol this stunning debut in all its glory, and to my absolute delight discovered that there was another book by B.A. Paris out, also in paperback. So I ordered it, and exactly one week after reading Behind Closed Doors, I read The Breakdown (2017) in 1.5 days. As with the previous novel, I couldn’t put it down. I neglected a conference paper and arrived late to a dress rehearsal because of it.

The plot involves Cass, a woman aged 34 (for which, read: 44 but the author has an eye on film producers), who lives an apparently perfect life. She has a perfect job, a perfect husband, and a perfect hierarchy of friends. But one night, driving home from a party in a storm, she passes a woman whose car has broken down. Although she feels guilt for doing nothing at the time, she forgets about it until the woman’s mutilated corpse is discovered in the same place. Cass is driven mad with guilt and grief, and things are not helped by the fact that she keeps forgetting things. Little things at first — her credit card in a supermarket, the car keys — and then bigger things — where she’s parked, how to operate the coffee machine — and they all build to a sinister crescendo. Cass begins to suspect that she is suffering from early onset dementia.

The novel rattles along at a breakneck pace. In almost every chapter, Cass seems to forget something more and more important, and something more and more terrible happens.  One of the publishers' tag-lines is fantastic: If you can't trust yourself, who can you trust? Even in moments when I suspected the author’s heart wasn’t in it — the sections that were clearly written in after the bulk — I turned the pages desperate to know what would happen next. Paris writes cinematically: she presents us with prose that doesn’t feel like prose, but hooks us in exactly the same way as a sexy, suspenseful, big-bucks movie.

Unfortunately, there are also some cons to the writing that aren’t evidenced in Behind Closed Doors. Some arcs aren’t resolved, especially the subplot involving Cass’s attractive workmate, John, which Paris builds up and then abandons, and there are some irksome typos such as ‘expresso’ and ‘money is no option’. This time around, though still gripped, I did think about the quality of the writing which means that, subconsciously, I was slowing down as a reader. The Breakdown is one of those fantastic novels that makes me want to write fiction; Behind Closed Doors was one of those fantastic novels that made me forget I want to write and just revel in the action of reading.

There’s also a bit of a psychological plot hole towards the end, which I understand is necessary as the final twist is revealed. The way the truth comes out feels a little artificial and stage managed. It would probably work on film, but it wouldn’t happen in real life. Of course, this doesn’t matter at all, because it’s still immensely entertaining. The problem, I think, is that Paris is clearly becoming one of those writers who produces a book a year; she has a new one out in 2018 called Bring Me Back (someone likes the letter B!). As such, as with G.D.H. and M. Cole, whom I reviewed last week, the writing is a bit hasty. I would prefer to read a new Paris which has been extensively thought through and edited every two years. But I don’t count for much, and this is the age old issue of supply and demand.

That said, B.A. Paris is clearly a major new voice in domestic suspense, and as a writer I don’t think we can blame her for any of the shortcomings brought about by publishers’ demands. I still recommend The Breakdown without hesitation, and fully intend to pre-order Bring Me Back.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Crimes of Passion (Svensk Filmindustri)

Alternative title for this blog post: Unpopular Opinion Time!

Maria Lang (1914-1991) has been described as ‘Sweden’s Agatha Christie’ and although I haven’t read any of her work, I gather that she has a better claim to the title than Camilla Lackberg. A university professor (Lang was a pseudonym for Dagmar Lange), she was a prolific producer of traditional mysteries with occasional dark or provocative themes. Crimes of Passion (2013) is a set of six standalone films based on novels by Lang, designed as an antidote to Nordic Noir, with one eye firmly on the export market. Both at home and abroad, it was a spectacular flop. Here is the twist: I like the series.

As with each season of Wallander, the first 90-minute episode of Crimes of Passion was broadcast in Swedish cinemas, and subsequent instalments went straight to DVD. The mistake here was that the first episode is by far the worst. It is almost unbelievably boring, and it’s little wonder that the whole thing was panned on the strength of the first episode’s reviews. In fact, despite trying three times, I couldn’t make it to the end of this episode. I had to switch off two thirds of the way through. There is one very uncritical reason I persevered and tried Episode Two: because everything about the show is absurdly pretty and I like pretty things.

The series also flopped as a UK export. Broadcast late at night in 2014 on BBC 4, the station that picked up some of the grimmest gems of Scandi Noir, Crimes of Passion was sold to the public as ‘Mad Men meets The Killing.’ It isn’t. It just isn’t. It’s light, cosy, and nostalgic. It’s the opposite of The Killing. I can’t help but agree with the Guardian’s reviewer, Vicky Frost, who opined that there was nothing wrong with the series; it was just being sold to us in the wrong way and would be more at home on ITV 3 than non BBC 4. That said, I don’t think it would work on any ITV station unless it was remade in English, and I’m sure producers would find a way to cock that up.

Frost also takes the series to task for failing to pay more than ‘lip-service’ to ‘issues’:
When Lange first wrote her mysteries in the 50s, her inclusion of themes such as lesbianism, the suffocating reality of marriage for women, or the scandal of children born out of wedlock would have had real impact. Here, they are dealt with somewhat half-heartedly; Puck’s reservations about marriage dealt with by a cheery “Let’s do things differently!”. It feels more like lipservice to the era than, for instance, the serious questioning of society found in the Swedish crime-writing of Henning Mankell or Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. Which is all the more frustrating given that one of its detectives is, unusually, a woman.

I do not know if Frost has read Lang’s fiction — again, I haven’t, and I'd like to hear from someone who has, because I’d love to know how she handles these issues. All I know, from a bit of Googling, is that the inclusion of a gay male couple in her first novel caused a few eyebrows to arch. I also know that Puck in the books (I’ll explain who she is below, but she’s the star of the show) just acts as an assistant to the main detective, who is the policeman. I know she only appears in a few books before being married off and replaced. I don’t know if Lang ever tried to seriously tackle societal issues. Three of the books have been translated into English, and maybe I’ll get round to reading them one day … if you’ve read them, would you recommend them? At any rate, there’s an argument and a place for escapist crime fiction in most societies.

So much for context. When it comes to the programme itself, the first thing to note is that every scene, every costume, and every actor is ludicrously pretty. The set-up is this: a very attractive PhD student called Puck (Tuva Novotny), and her very very attractive boyfriend-then-husband Eje (Linus Wahlgren, whose idea of emotional range is varying shades of the same goofy smile), help a very attractive policeman called Christer to solve murders in a 1950s Swedish mining town. Christer is played by Ola Rapace, AKA Stefan Lindman in Wallander (2005). But in that series, he was angsty, aggressive, and troubled. Here, he is an avuncular pipe smoker whose biggest problem is working out which unsuitable woman to sleep with next.

As for the plots, I think they’re quite good. They’re not great, but each time there’s a steady central mystery with a reliable reveal and enough impact on the unfurling story of Puck and Eje’s evolving, then strained, relationship. It’s rather sad to see, in the final episode, that Puck becomes a published writer — because clearly this was the screenwriters paving the way to have Puck take a central role in future adaptations. In the later books, the character is replaced by Lang’s equivalent of Ariadne Oliver, an eccentric mystery novelist. Of course, there won’t be any more episodes. This doesn’t bother me too much: I’m not invested in Puck, Eje, or Christer. I deliberately chose to watch something light after ploughing briskly through all of The Bridge, all of Wallander (that ending was marvellous, wasn’t it, and brutal?), and most of The Killing. Well, Crimes of Passion, with its nebulous 1950s escapism, couldn’t be lighter.

Here is a summary of the six episodes, and my thoughts on each:
  1. Mördaren ljuger inte ensam (UK title Death of a Loved One) - lots of beautiful people are stranded on an island, then they start having sex and dying. I didn’t care for this one.
  1. Kung Liljekonvalje av dungen (UK title King Lily of the Valley) - a bride-to-be vanishes on her way to pick up her bouquet! WTF? Puck, Eje, and Christer work out who is lying (clue: it’s everyone). I don’t remember much of this one.
  1. Inte flera mord (UK title No More Murders) - Puck has married Eje, and now that he can’t say no, she gets a cat called Thotmes III, which promptly runs away and into a corpse, more or less in their back garden. Then a leading crime writer disappears. This was my favourite episode, partly because it was so much fun, partly because there was some genuinely interesting stuff about sexual ethics, and partly because ‘flera’ is my favourite Swedish word. 
  1. Rosor, kyssar, och döden (UK title Roses, Kisses, and Death) — something to do with seances, and another unsuitable girlfriend for Christer. I found this episode boring, and fell asleep watching it.
  1. Farliga drömmar (UK title Dangerous Dreams) — Puck becomes a stenographer for a Nobel prize winning novelist, who turns out to be rather mean. Then people start dying, and Puck starts to wonder why she was hired in the first place. This is a marvellously creepy episode with a locked-room feel (although the room is in this case the novelist’s highly-secure country estate). I would recommend this one.
  1. Tragedi på en lantkyrkogård (UK title Tragedy in a Country Churchyard) — This is a ‘busy’ episode, as it’s trying to round up the series while keeping things open for more. It’s set at Christmas where a family celebration at the vicarage is disrupted by a missing person who proves to be a not-very-missing corpse. Eje is pretty useless in this one — he just swans around getting tempted by a glamorous widow — so Puck teams up with a little girl (who is, amazingly, well played by a non-annoying child actor). That character, who devours crime fiction including Maria Lang’s Inte flera mord!, reminded me of Josephine in Agatha Christie’s Crooked House. But there the similarities end. While I liked Tragedy in a Country Churchyard very much, one thing that irritated me was the fact that everyone was smiling in every scene. It’s like the director reminded the cast between takes that this was supposed to be light and frothy. So we have Puck and Christer flirting over a corpse, and grinning broadly as they describe just how the axe was wielded, and how the young girl nearly stepped in his blood. Weird.
No one gives a spectacular performance in Crimes of Passion and I don’t know if the screenwriters have done Lang justice or not, but the scripts are okay. The whole thing remains consistently watchable. If I was a knitter, this would be the perfect programme to knit in front of. It’s absolutely everything  people think ‘cosy crime’ is: entertaining, easy, and a bit pointless. If there had been more episodes, I would have watched them for sure, but I’m not deranged with grief that the show was cancelled.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

Happy birthday, Agatha Christie! The grand dame of crime fiction turns 127 today (15 September), and as a birthday treat – because I’m sure her ghost has nothing better to do than to read a blog with an audience of about 6 – I wanted to review one of her books.

I’ve chosen Cards on the Table (1936) because I think it encapsulates something about Christie’s strengths as a writer, and the extent to which she is still misunderstood. This novel has always been one of my absolute favourites, and it never ceases to amaze me that so many people can take it or leave it. I read it at a young age – on my first ever day off school due to illness. I had a ridiculously high fever and simply lay in bed all day until I’d finished with my grandad’s old Fontana copy. It was amazing.

The premise is pre-empted in The ABC Murders (1935), when Poirot describes his idea of a perfect case:
‘Supposing,’ murmured Poirot, ‘that four people sit down to play bridge and one - the odd man out - sits in a chair by the fire. At the end of the evening the man by the fire is found dead. One of the four - while he is dummy - has gone over and killed him - and intent on the
play of the hand - the other three have not noticed. Ah – there would be a crime for you! Which of the four was it?’
 ‘Well—' I said. ‘I can't see any excitement in that!’

Christie alludes to this exchange in her foreword to Cards on the Table, when she writes:
[T]his story [...] was one of Hercule Poirot's favourite cases. His friend, Captain Hastings, however, when Poirot described it to him, considered it very dull! I wonder with which of them my readers will agree.
Already, subtly, she has blurred fiction and reality – not simply by pretending that Poirot and Hastings are real, but also by describing something that was presented one year previously as a hypothetical game as an honest-to-God literary memoir. I think that we need to accept and deal with the fact that Christie was one of the foremost genre destabilisers of her day. She always acknowledged the essential artificiality of her genre; but more than that, she exploited it.

Therefore, we have a very simple, very artificial set-up. Mr Shaitana – see what she did there? – is a parody of Oriental otherness; dripping with sexual nonconformity and esoteric artistry. He has a ‘collector’s mentality’, but what does he collect? Murderers – and ‘only the best’. That is to say, murderers who have got away with it. One day, Shaitana invites Hercule Poirot, some of his friends, and four of his ‘exhibits’ to a bridge party. In one room, four detectives play bridge. In the next room, four murderers play bridge. The host sits out. By the end of the night, the host has been stabbed.
We have here a straightforward case, then: four detectives and four suspects. There are no clever-clever twists: one of the four suspects is the villain.

But Cards on the Table is more than a whodunit in its purest form. It is, among other things, a metatextual masterpiece. Here, Poirot is joined by three sleuths who have only appeared so far in other series of books: Inspector Battle, of The Seven Dials Mystery, Ariadne Oliver, of Parker Pyne Investigates, and Colonel Race, of The Man in the Brown Suit. Hastings and Japp do not appear. In this way, Poirot is thrust into an artificial, stylised world, where he is meeting his own creator’s other creations. At times, this gets extreme: we encounter Ariadne Oliver, a crime novelist and the author of The Body in the Library, complaining about the trials of writing about an eccentric European detective. And who does she ask for advice? Hercule Poirot!

Still more is going on, because, quite simply, from the outset, we know that all the suspects are murderers. They would not be there unless they had killed, and gotten away with killing. And Agatha Christie was far too good a writer to make one of them innocent. These are eminently respectable figures: a wealthy widow, a paid companion, a high-end doctor, and a military adventurer. All respectable, and all downright horrible. So, in the end, does it really matter who killed Shaitana…?

While the police start looking for witnesses and physical evidence, Poirot examines the bridge scores, and asks questions designed to probe psychological make-ups: will the suspect have observed the furniture or the game play? That kind of thing. Our four detectives – though Poirot is the main one – quickly uncover everyone’s closeted skeletons and, eventually, Hercule triumphs.

Poirot captures the murderer by lying shamelessly. He hires an actor to play the part of a window cleaner who saw everything. The murderer promptly confesses all (I didn’t say Christie was perfect).  It reminds me of those times in other cases when Poirot lies about finding fingerprints, to force the criminal’s hand. In Death in the Clouds, the murderer snaps back: ‘That’s impossible, I was wearing gloves!’, which is AMAZING. In The ABC Murders, the baddie breaks down and confesses, whereupon Poirot tells Hastings ‘I put [the made up finger print] in for you.’ The point is, he doesn’t care a fig for this kind of physical evidence – this male and traditional way of thinking – which can be counterfeited and manipulated. There is something purer and better about his methods.

Part of Cards on the Table that I particularly like is the romance between Major Despard and Rhoda Dawes, because it is utterly twisted.  Despard is the colonial adventurer-slash-murderer who also exhibits barely challenged racism. We are told all along that, regardless of our sex, we should be completely in love with him. I think he’s a prick and was sorry that he not only survived the novel but returned in The Pale Horse (1961). For much of the novel, he is sniffing around Anne Meredith, the pretty young companion who once fed her employer hat poison.

(That was an in-joke, by the way. Lucy Malleson, a friend of Christie’s, wrote crime fiction under two pseudonyms: Anthony Gilbert and … Anne Meredith. One of her best Meredith books is being reissued by the British Library in a special edition as the 50th in their Crime Classics series, later this month.)

When Anne turns out to be a wrong ‘un, the Major barely bats a tanned and war-painted eyelid. He turns his attentions to Anne’s dumpy roommate, Rhoda, who is also a crime fiction geek – Poirot shows her the knife used in Murder on the Orient Express – and way too good for him. Then the major makes a weird psychopathic joke about murdering Poirot, the new feminised foreign threat and the only character who doesn’t like him. Everyone chuckles, and the book draws to its frankly alarming close.

Of course, when Cards on the Table was filmed, it became unthinkable that a pretty girl could be bad and her frumpy friend could be good, so the story was rewritten to make Rhoda an evil lesbian, secretly in love with Anne and slaying everyone who gets in her way, willy nilly, with no apparent logic. Anne ends up with the major and Rhoda ends up at the bottom of a river. I moan much more eloquently and extensively about this adaptation in my book, Queering Agatha Christie.

Cards on the Table is a tour de force from the sharpest mind in twentieth century crime fiction. It has been unjustly savaged by reviewers and horrifically treated on television, and I hope that in the future this golden age gem will be given its due.

P.S. That cover looks like a Tom Adams, doesn’t it? Sometimes, it’s listed as one. I asked Tom Adams about it one day, and he was quite indignant. He said he’d never do a painting like that. Scott Wallace Baker, expert on all things Agatha Christie and Tom Adams, tells me the artist is Ian Robinson.