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review 2017-10-18 02:07
Hickory Dickory Dock
Hickory Dickory Dock (Audio) - Agatha Christie,Hugh Fraser

Hercule Poirot frowned. 

"Miss Lemon," he said.

"Yes, M. Poirot?"

"There are three mistakes in this letter."

His voice held incredulity. For Miss Lemon, that hideous and efficient woman, never made mistakes. She was never ill, never tired, never upset, never inaccurate. For all practical purposes, that is to say, she was not a woman at all. She was a machine - the perfect secretary. She knew everything, she coped with everything. She ran Hercule Poirot's life for him, so that it, too, functioned like a machine.

Order and method had been Hercule Poirot's watchwords from many years ago. With George, his perfect manservant, and Miss Lemon, his perfect secretary, order and method ruled supreme in his life. Now that crumpets were baked square as well as round, he had nothing about which to complain.

Square crumpets?! Have I missed these so far?


Anyway, to the book... Hickory Dickory Dock was a fun read, in which Miss Lemon gets some page time. The story is set in 1955 in London and Miss Lemon is worried about her sister and the strange goings on at the hostel where her sister works: Things have gone missing.


In order to return to a life of normalcy and perfection, Poirot offers to help Miss Lemon's sister solve the mystery of the disappearing items.


Hickory Dickory Dock is a great story to note the differences in Christie's writing between the pre- and post-war periods. This story is set in the 50s, and the bright young things are now less decadent and more international. The youth comes across in Christie's dialogues reasonably well, but the international aspect made me cringe. 

Let's face it, despite her efforts, Christie just was not great at writing characters from non-English backgrounds.


Still, it was fun watching Poirot solve this, even if sometimes you just want to kick Poirot in the shins.

Hercule Poirot nodded understandingly. It seemed to him appropriate that Miss Lemon's sister should have spent most of her life in Singapore. That was what places like Singapore were for. The sisters of women like Miss Lemon married men in business in Singapore, so that the Miss Lemons of this world could devote themselves with machine-like efficiency to their employers' affairs (and of course to the invention of filing systems in their moments of relaxations).


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text 2017-10-17 15:15
Reading progress update: Thallium
The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison - John Emsley

It's not that often that a book about murder makes me smile, but Emsley has bit of a "Battle of the Grand Dames of Mystery" going on here. (I have put the titles in spoiler tags in case the plot description provides spoilers...)


In the red corner, Dame Agatha:

Agatha Christie built one of her murder mysteries around thallium poisoning. In

1952 she wrote The Pale Horse

(spoiler show)

, in which the murderer used it to dispose of people’s unwanted relatives and disguised his activities as black magic curses. The plot involves a murdered priest and a pub owned by three modern-day witches.* Christie described the symptoms of thallium poisoning very well: lethargy, tingling, numbness of the hands and feet, blackouts, slurred speech, insomnia, and general debility, and she is sometimes blamed for bringing this poison to the attention of would-be poisoners. However, her book was responsible for saving the life of one young girl as we shall see.


In the blue corner, we have Ngaio Marsh also using Thallium:



Final Curtain, written in 1947

(spoiler show)

, the novelist Ngaio Marsh had her villain using it. The murder to be investigated was the death of

Sir Henry Ancred

(spoiler show)

who had been poisoned with thallium acetate which had been prescribed in the treatment of his granddaughter’s ringworm. Marsh clearly had no knowledge of how thallium worked in that she imagined that those poisoned with it would drop dead in minutes. Would-be murderers seeking to emulate her villain would have been very puzzled when their intended victims appeared to suffer no ill effects, although this disappointment might only have lasted a few days, and then they would have been fascinated at the many symptoms it produced.


I haven't read Marsh, yet, (something I intend to remedy someday) but one of the fun aspects in Dame Agatha's work is that she seldom gets the use of poisons wrong. Her training as a nurse and familiarity with pharmacy had much use, of course, but she also didn't slack on her research in that field.


This is the only instance in Emsley's book that cites crime writing. The rest of the book recounts real events and people.

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review 2017-10-12 23:00
Josephine Tey: A Life
Josephine Tey: A Life - Jennifer Morag Henderson

Ian Rankin is among the contemporary authors who cite Josephine Tey as an influence, and Tey is often cited as ‘Fifth’ after the ‘Big Four’ crime writers of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh – the essential exponents of crime fiction which all aficionados of the genre have at least a passing acquaintance with. Readers and critics talk about her books and recommend them to others.

And, yet, not much is generally known about Josephine Tey, or rather Elizabeth MacKintosh, because she was a very private person who kept her private affairs strictly separate from her work, and even in that she used several pen names to work in different genres. 


With all of these smoke and mirrors, it is even more enjoyable to read a biography that does not just regurgitate the little that has been known about MacKintosh but that evidently presents the results of new research and the authors efforts to really dig through the archives and interview the few remaining people who knew MacKintosh. 


Henderson also provides a wider view into the historical and literary background to MacKintosh's upbringing and the issues that influenced her writing - notably some of the hypocrisy of Inverness society. 


In an earlier review of Tey's novel The Man in the Queue, I wondered whether "Tey may actually have tried to dispel some of the stereotypes found in the pulp fiction of her time". 

Having read this biography, I believe that she indeed struggled with people's assumptions about other people of any difference to them, and that did use her books to dispel various assumptions. 


Her upbringing and training instilled in her a love for history and a propensity for researching and questioning accepted facts. Her love for England at a time of the rise of Scottish nationalism, for which her very own home town of Inverness at the centre, caused her to question the importance of national identity. Her friends included people of all walks of life and this together with her disdain for the snobbishness of her neighbours in Inverness, only supported her approach to meet people on the basis of their character, not their background. 


When I first picked up this biography, I had some concerns about whether Henderson, herself an Invernessian, would put forward a certain bias of town pride, but this concern was quickly abandoned. Henderson's description and analysis of the existing sources about MacKintosh, her writing, and the historical situation during MacKintosh's life quickly proved a fair and balanced assessment. And, let me say this again, Henderson's efforts in bringing up primary sources to back up her descriptions and statements about MacKintosh, has been really impressive.


This was a brick of a book and I loved every page, and I am now even more eager than before to investigate the works Elizabeth MacKintosh aka Gordon Daviot aka Josephine Tey.  

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text 2017-10-11 23:14
Reading progress update: I've read 310 out of 426 pages.
Josephine Tey: A Life - Jennifer Morag Henderson


In 2013, the dramatic discovery of Richard III’s remains under a Leicester car park was widely reported, with a documentary following the entire process broadcast on Channel 4. The documentary had to set the scene by doing what Tey achieved in The Daughter of Time: show the average viewer just why a group of people (the Richard III Society) cared so much about a dead king’s reputation that they were willing to put enormous time, effort and money into the seemingly impossible task of finding his body. The Richard III Society exists to promote the revisionist ideas about Richard which Tey puts across so forcefully. They more generally aim to promote balanced historical research, rather than allowing history to be written by the victors, an admirable aim which even the least Ricardian can understand.

The Richard III Society has been around since the 1920s. Josephine Tey was never a member, though, as The Daughter of Time shows, she was of course aware that other historians shared her view of Richard. Tey’s 1951 novel brought the views of the Society to a more general audience and increased their popularity so much that the Richard III Society website still dedicates a special section to Tey’s life and work for all enthusiasts who come to their society by that route. After Josephine Tey’s death she left the copyright to all her novels to the National Trust, who then had to field many queries about The Daughter of Time and its authenticity.

Coincidentally, the person who took those queries, volunteer Isolde Wigram, was also the secretary and a prime mover in the revival of the Richard III Society, and so was well able to answer any question on the topic, and took great joy and pride in doing so. Since the 2013 discovery of Richard III’s body, Josephine Tey’s novel has attracted attention again. The novel has never been out of print, and is a constant fixture on bookshop shelves and in lists of the best-ever crime novels, and, in 1990, was voted the number one crime novel of all time by the UK Crime Writers’ Association.

On a different note, I have about 45 pages left in the book. The sensible voice in my head is telling me to finish this tomorrow and get a good night's sleep. 

The other voices tell me that sleep is overrated when there is such a book to be finished.


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text 2017-10-11 20:04
Reading progress update: I've read 216 out of 426 pages.
Josephine Tey: A Life - Jennifer Morag Henderson

Still liking this book a lot, and the potential issue I expected I might have when I read the first few chapters has all but dissolved. 



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