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review 2019-02-19 08:41
The Mystery of the Blue Train
The Mystery of the Blue Train: A Hercule Poirot Mystery - Agatha Christie

‘A mirror shows the truth, but everyone stands in a different place for looking into the mirror.’


I have always thought of The Mystery of the Blue Train as a strange story - not a first rate mystery, not a complete mess, but most definitely not a memorable Christie classic.


As Christie herself tells us in her autobiography, she was not fond of this story either - partly because she didn't feel like she managed to flesh out the characters so they would come alive on the page, and partly because she wrote this story under the pressures of having to earn a paycheck after the separation from her first husband. 

I felt more strongly than ever that everything I was saying was idiotic! (Most of it was, too.) I faltered, stammered, hesitated, and repeated myself. Really, how that wretched book ever came to be written, I don’t know! To begin with, I had no joy in writing, no elan. I had worked out the plot–a conventional plot, partly adapted from one of my other stories. I knew, as one might say, where I was going, but I could not see the scene in my mind’s eye, and the people would not come alive. I was driven desperately on by the desire, indeed the necessity, to write another book and make some money. That was the moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you are writing, and aren’t writing particularly well. I have always hated The Mystery of the Blue Train, but I got it written, and sent off to the publishers. It sold just as well as my last book had done. So I had to content myself with that–though I cannot say I have ever been proud of it.


Agatha Christie - An Autobiography (pp. 357-358). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

And indeed, for me, too, there is little that stood out in the characters when I first read the story, and the crime and it's motive are, while horrible, fairly uninteresting. 

As a result, I have always looked at this story as a first draft of what would become one of my favourite Christie classics - Murder on the Orient Express.


On this most recent re-read, however, details that were not strictly connected with the whodunnit revealed themselves that gave the story another layer, that connected this odd little story to the rest, and the best, of the Christie universe. 

If you look closely, you can find that one of the characters, Katherine Grey, does not only have the spark of the brightest of Christie's young things but she's also come from that most intriguing of little villages - that cradle of human psychology in the Christie universe - St Mary Mead, home of a certain fierce and judgmental little old lady whom I can't stand but who, one has to admit, has a certain flair for snooping out crime.


This is as close as we get to Marple and Poirot ever meeting in the same book. They don't (and Christie herself was not in favour of them meeting), but The Mystery of the Blue Train seems like one of the key steps in Christie's development of the Marple series, even if this was perhaps not what the author intended. 


The full force of Marple would hit the reading public two years later in Murder at the Vicarage, but there are some hints at village life that seem to have already been on Christie's mind when penning Blue Train. For the Christie enthusiast - or Agathyte as Moonlight Reader has christened us fans - this is a delicious little detail that makes the book worth reading if it lacks much of the intelligent and complex plotting of a great Christie novel.  


Previous Reading Updates:


Reading progress update: I've read 1 out of 308 pages.

Reading progress update: I've read 44 out of 308 pages.

Reading progress update: I've read 78 out of 308 pages.

Reading progress update: I've read 104 out of 308 pages.

Reading progress update: I've read 196 out of 308 pages.

Reading progress update: I've read 276 out of 308 pages.

Reading progress update: I've read 293 out of 308 pages.


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review SPOILER ALERT! 2019-02-11 22:40
Third Girl
Third Girl - Agatha Christie

‘Did she say anything?’

‘She said she had been into the bathroom to wash the blood off her hands—and then she said, “But you can’t wash things like that off, can you?”’

‘Out, damnéd spot, in fact?’

‘I cannot say that she reminded me particularly of Lady Macbeth. She was—how shall I put it?—perfectly composed. She laid the knife down on the table and sat down on a chair.’

‘What else did she say?’ asked Chief Inspector Neele, his eyes dropping to a scrawled note in front of him.

‘Something about hate. That it wasn’t safe to hate anybody.’

What a strange book! 


When the book starts off with our favourite Belgian detective receiving a visit from a young woman who clearly has a problem that's been weighing on her mind, I was both dismayed and delighted.

Dismayed because Poirot's immediate attitude to the young is that of what I can only describe as a git. 

He had hoped perhaps for something nearer to his own estimate of female attraction. The outworn phrase ‘beauty in distress’ had occurred to him. He was disappointed when George returned ushering in the visitor; inwardly he shook his head and sighed. Here was no beauty—and no noticeable distress either. Mild perplexity would seem nearer the mark. ‘Pha!’ thought Poirot disgustedly. ‘These girls! Do they not even try to make something of themselves? Well made up, attractively dressed, hair that has been arranged by a good hairdresser, then perhaps she might pass. But now!’

However, I was also intrigued by the woman's reaction to Poirot:

‘I’m awfully sorry and I really don’t want to be rude, but—’

She breathed an enormous sigh, looked at Poirot, looked away, and suddenly blurted out, ‘You’re too old. Nobody told me you were so old. I really don’t want to be rude but—there it is. You’re too old. I’m really very sorry.’

She turned abruptly and blundered out of the room, rather like a desperate moth in lamplight. Poirot, his mouth open, heard the bang of the front door.

He ejaculated: ‘Nom d’un nom d’un nom…’

And there we have one of the major conflicts of the book right from the start of the book - the generational clash - each treating the other with disdain. Unfortunately, much of the book continues in the same vain, pitching the fears of the old against the ignorance of the young. 


It made me wonder if Christie had developed a dislike for young people at the time she wrote this, or if she merely didn't know any young people anymore and just lost touch. 


The book is set in the mid-1960s (we have disparaging references to beatniks and The Beatles) and we get comments about men looking like women, women no longer taking care of their appearances, young people being generally rude and selfish in the way that they don't let other people know their whereabouts and a ton of other complaints about the awful state of society which is peopled by young people. 


All the while, the actual young people we meet are nothing like any characters of the era. The actual characters struck me as drafts that Christie dug out from notes she made for an earlier book written or set in the 1930s. There is a bit of a difference there and when reading Christie's characters I felt that most infrequent of connections to the Joe Ortons and the Alan Silitoes of the time, who tried to give their generation an actual voice because Christie so very clearly could not.


Now, I realise that Christie in all likelihood also never intended to become the new spokes-person of British youth in the 1960s, but from the depiction of her characters it really sounded like she had completely disconnected with the world around her. 


From there on, this book just became more bizarre and just ... sad. 


While the Bright Young Things of Christie's earlier novels were charing, capable and full of spark, the young people (mostly in their early 20s) were self-fish, soul-less, callous, confused, incapable, naive, and - if we consider the main twist of this mystery - just plain gullable?


What happened Dame Agatha???


On top of this weird obsession with the generational divide, this is also the book that I will henceforth remember as the book where characters obsess about sex and throw in a bunch of pseudo-psychology references, which made for even more of a cringe-fest:

Poirot looked again at his list.

‘And what about Mr David Baker? Have you looked him up for me?’

‘Oh, he’s one of the usual mob. Riff-raff—go about in gangs and break up night clubs. Live on purple hearts—heroin—Coke—Girls go mad about them. He’s the kind they moan over saying his life has been so hard and he’s such a wonderful genius. His painting is not appreciated. Nothing but good old sex, if you ask me.’

Poirot consulted his list again.


‘So that is what you say. Rubbish! And not neurotic?’

‘Any girl, or almost any girl, can be neurotic, especially in adolescence, and in her first encounters with the world. She is still immature, and needs guidance in her first encounters with sex. Girls are frequently attracted to completely unsuitable, sometimes even dangerous young men. There are, it seems, no parents nowadays, or hardly any, with the strength of character to save them from this, so they often go through a time of hysterical misery, and perhaps make an unsuitable marriage which ends not long after in divorce.’

Oh, what insight! (*rolls eyes*)


I have mentioned before that there were certain aspects of Dame Agatha's writing that she was not very good at: espionage thrillers is one of them, anything to do with sex and/or romance is, imo, another. 


As great as some of her other on-page relationships are, the romance angle in her books has never worked for me, and in many cases has even creeped me out - Sad Cypress, The Man in the Brown Suit (needed a barf bucket for that one), Taken at the Flood, ...


Sadly, there is a similar romance angle at the end of this story, which is both unbelievable (because why would a woman who has just survived a major trauma so readily fall in love) and also totally inappropriate (because that was still meant to be a professional relationship). 


And still, even this was still not the dumbest aspect of this novel. Nope, the award for sheer w-t-f-ery has to go to the incredibly daft plot - not only the way that poor Norma is messed with but also the utterly ridiculous notion that she would not recognise someone in a wig. 


Both are utter nonsense.


Nevertheless, the fact that we have Poirot, Miss Lemon, and Ariadne Oliver interacting in this one was fab. 

Actually, Ariadne Oliver's presence in this book alone made up for some (but not all) of the disappointment that this books stirred in me. 

‘How did you get this?’ asked Restarick of Poirot, tapping it curiously.

‘From a friend of mine via a furniture van,’ said Poirot, with a glance at Mrs Oliver. Restarick looked at her without favour.

‘I couldn’t help it,’ said Mrs Oliver, interpreting his look correctly. ‘I suppose it was her furniture being moved out, and the men let go of a desk, and a drawer fell out and scattered a lot of things, and the wind blew this along the courtyard, so I picked it up and tried to give it back to them, but they were cross and didn’t want it, so I just put it in my coat pocket without thinking. And I never even looked at it until this afternoon when I was taking things out of pockets before sending the coat to the cleaners. So it really wasn’t my fault.’

She paused, slightly out of breath.


Now pass me the Creme de Cassis.

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review 2019-02-08 20:30
Sparkling Cyanide
Sparkling Cyanide - Agatha Christie

Whilst we were dancing, the ghost of Rosemary hovers near George’s glass and drops in some cleverly materialized cyanide—any spirit can make cyanide out of ectoplasm. George comes back and drinks her health and—oh, Lord!’

The other two stared curiously at him.

And so am I. I did not enjoy Sparkling Cyanide anywhere near as much as other Christie books, and it is one of the very few where I believe that the tv adaptation (either of the two tv adaptations I have seen - one with Pauline Collins and Oliver Ford Davies, and one with Anthony Andrews) were much more engaging than the book. 


Of course, Sparkling Cyanide is nowhere near Christie's worst book(s) - that honour goes to Passenger to Frankfurt, hands down - but there were a number of aspects that annoyed me:


1. I was bored. This is not a great story to read if you already know who's dunnit.


2. While I liked a few of the characters - Lord and Lady Kidderminster and their daughter and son-in-law Sandra and Stephen Farraday - these characters, in the original, were just no patch on their tv versions - Clare Holman and James Wilby were excellent (!) and I could actually really care for their versions of Sandra and Stephen. Christie's book versions paled by contrast and I was a little disappointed how wooden and stilted their relationship was depicted.


3. There just seem to be way too many characters in this one. Now, this is a perception only. There probably aren't any more characters in this than there are in  some of my favourite Christies - Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile or Three Act Tragedy anyone? These have lots of characters but they are very distinct from each other - and they are memorable. The characters in Sparkling Cyanide weren't. If it had not been for Hugh Fraser's lovely narration giving each of them a voice (in a manner of speaking), I would have had no feel at all for who was who.


4. The murder. The method (tho with a different element) of murder had been used before, and to my mind, in a much better way. The other story I am thinking of is one of my favourite Christies and reading this re-hash has left me seriously underwhelmed. 


Sparkling Cyanide started life as a short story (The Yellow Iris) and is one of several stories that Christie revised for a longer book. In this case, it didn't work. I actually prefer the short story. 

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review 2018-07-01 15:40
They Came to Baghdad
They Came to Baghdad - Agatha Christie

I have about 10 books left to read of Dame Agatha's canon of fictional work, and I must admit that this was one of the ones I was not looking forward to. 


Knowing from previous experience that Christie did not excel totally sucked at writing international espionage thrillers, and still suffering from some sort of PTSD following my reads of Passenger to Frankfurt, Destination Unknown, Postern of Fate, ... I expected that this book could only be approached with the help of: 


1. A Support System


2. Gin


So, imagine my surprise when the book turned out to be a romp with a fabulously delightful young female lead character - Victoria Jones - who stands up for herself and, as is unfortunately rather unusual in a Christie novel, does not completely loose her mind to a sapless idiot of romantic interest...well, ... it's a long story...just read the book.


I loved the setting of the story in Baghdad, even tho it is littered with the ex-pat cliches of its time. I loved the inclusion of the archaeologists...especially Dr. Pauncefoot-Jones (whom I simply had to call Dr. Jones in my head all the way through...even if he did not resemble our fedora-wearing favourite at all), and I even did not mind the ridiculous conspiracy plot. 


Now, you may ask why I didn't mind the ridiculousness here in They Came to Baghdad when I have so often on this journey through Dame Agatha's canon complained about the sheer idiocy of similar plots?


I honestly have to say that it is because They Came to Baghdad opened my eyes even more to the overrated status of Ian Fleming's James Bond series, which to date I had considered the epitome of ridiculous espionage thrillers. 

The fact is that I recognised a lot of the really cool elements from the Bond series (of which there are very few elements in the entire series, imo) in this very book, written by Christie, years before Fleming even published his first spy thriller - Casino Royale.


The "similarity" that stood out most for me was a scene where a character checks her/his hotel room to see if anyone has been snooping while they were away. It is one of the most memorable scenes in Casino Royale and was also one of the scenes that made it into the movie franchise (in Dr. No, I believe...one of the Connery ones anyway). 

So, it came as a shock to me to see the exact same scene written by Agatha Christie is used in They Came to Baghdad, which was published 2 years before Fleming's first Bond novel. 2 years before!!!


There were other elements, too. For example, Christie dreams up a conspiracy in this book that resembles an organisation that features in the later Bond novels ("SPECTRE" anyone?).


I mean, I know that Fleming basically copied the entire plot of Casino Royale from Phyllis Bottome's book The Lifeline, and I had great fun in researching this claim earlier this year and compiling a comparison of both books after seeing for myself how much Fleming "borrowed" from Bottome.   

What I had not expected, tho, is that there are other elements of the iconic classic that is the Bond myth, that may have not originated as such with Fleming, but that may have existed prior to Fleming's canon.


Least of all, I expected to find these elements in Christie's work! I love her mysteries. I love her writing even tho her sometimes antiquated views drive me nuts. 

And now I have to yet again salute Dame Agatha for the very thing I had not thought her capable of - I have to salute her for being able to create an international espionage romp that has all the hallmarks of a Bond novel, mocks the entire essence of the Bond novel, and simultaneously improves upon it - and all of that before the blasted Bond novel even became a thing!


But never mind my weird obsession with Bond and Fleming's plagiarism thievery. They Came to Baghdad does not need the comparison to work as book. Christie dreamt up a hilarious adventure and it is obvious that she had great fun writing the story. 

Nearly every chapter starts with a tongue-in-cheek comment, and the characters themselves - including a celebrity sporting a cloak and a large, unusual hat - are so much fun to watch. 


Some of Christie's comments and descriptions are dated, of course, but They Came to Baghdad seems positively enlightened when compared with that other, slightly more famous, series of spy adventures that was to be created two years later.



Previous updates:


Reading progress update: I've read 5%.

Reading progress update: I've read 7%.

Reading progress update: I've read 11%.

Reading progress update: I've read 24%.

Reading progress update: I've read 38%.

Reading progress update: I've read 46%.

Reading progress update: I've read 74%.

Reading progress update: I've read 86%.

Reading progress update: I've read 88%.

Reading progress update: I've read 93%.

Reading progress update: I've read 100%.

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review 2018-06-24 20:56
Sad Cypress
Sad Cypress - Agatha Christie

The court. Faces. Rows and rows of faces! One particular face with a big black moustache and shrewd eyes. Hercule Poirot, his head a little on one side, his eyes thoughtful, was watching her.

   She thought: He’s trying to see just exactly why I did it… He’s trying to get inside my head to see what I thought – what I felt…

   Felt…? A little blur – a slight sense of shock… Roddy’s face – his dear, dear face with its long nose, its sensitive mouth… Roddy! Always Roddy – always, ever since she could remember… since those days at Hunterbury amongst the raspberries and up in the warren and down by the brook. Roddy – Roddy – Roddy… 

   Other faces! Nurse O’Brien, her mouth slightly open, her freckled fresh face thrust forward. Nurse Hopkins looking smug – smug and implacable. Peter Lord’s face – Peter Lord – so kind, so sensible, so – so comforting! But looking now – what was it – lost? Yes – lost! Minding – minding all this frightfully! While she herself, the star performer, didn’t mind at all!

   Here she was, quite calm and cold, standing in the dock, accused of murder.

In my reading of Christie's novels, this is one of the best opening scenes. 


And what is more, I thought this was one of the best Poirot novels of the canon, together with Five Little Pigs, which is quite similar in structure. 

There is a little more to Sad Cypress than meets the eye at first, and it doesn't read like the usual formulaic Christie novel. 


For a start, the character of Elinor, the MC, is not your happy-go-lucky bright young thing. We meet her as the accused, who hesitates when asked whether she pleads guilty or not guilty. 

From there on, we step back in time to see the story unfold from the start but even then, Elinor, is riddled with doubts and cares. Christie does a marvellous job describing a woman being close to a breakdown throughout the story leading up to the arrest. 


By that time, of course we still don't know what happens and whether her state of mind is caused by her guilt over plotting a murder. We won't know this until the end. 

This is another aspect I liked. This book keeps up its suspense until the end - and even then there are elements which remain ... a mystery. 


Yes, the murder is resolved, but much of the book is based on the character of the individuals involved in the plot - and one person's reading of a character may put forth a completely different interpretation of the ending than another reader's. 


I, for one, tended to find the ending unsettling - in both the ways of what happened to the villain and what happened to the victim. I don't know if Dame Agatha had intended this to be a happy ending, but I can't quite see it that way. 

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