One, Two, Buckle my Shoe – Agatha Christie

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Hercule Poirot visits his dentist, Mr Morley, reluctantly. It’s just a check up but he’s apprehensive. The visit goes smoothly, nothing out of the ordinary happens except that as Poirot is leaving, he sees a middle-aged woman arrive at the surgery. As she steps from her taxi, she catches her shoe & the buckle is torn off. Poirot politely picks up the buckle & hands it to her. He is amazed to hear from Chief Inspector Japp that, just hours after Poirot’s visit, Mr Morley has been found shot dead & it appears to be suicide.

Poirot is suspicious. Mr Morley seemed perfectly normal & untroubled & there seems no motive for suicide until one of his patients, Mr Amberiotis, dies suddenly of an overdose of the anaesthetic drug administered by Mr Morley. Was it remorse at making such a terrible mistake that led to the dentist committing suicide? Then, another patient, Miss Sainsbury Seale (she of the buckled shoes), disappears after a visit from Poirot & Japp. Poirot’s investigations will involve everyone who was in Mr Morley’s house that day – Alfred, the page boy who can’t remember anyone’s name correctly; his assistant, Gladys Nevill, who should have been at work that day but was mysteriously called away to visit a sick aunt who is perfectly healthy; Gladys’s unsatisfactory young man, Frank Carter; Howard Raikes, a young American who left the surgery waiting room without keeping his appointment; Mr Morley’s partner, the alcoholic Irishman Reilly; Mr Morley’s sister, Georgina, & her maid, Agnes, in the flat above the surgery; financier Alistair Blunt (whose niece, Jane, is in love with Raikes) & the mysterious Mr Barnes who hints to Poirot about espionage. What could connect this disparate group of people & why was Mr Morley murdered?

This is a classic Christie plot with red herrings galore & some quite subtle misdirection. I had always thought of Christie as quite a bloodless writer (in the sense of not dwelling on the physical details of her corpses) but there’s a very gruesome scene where a decomposing body is found that was startling. There’s also humour in the reaction of people to Poirot & the way he takes advantage of their rudeness or dismissal of him as a “bloody foreigner”.

I haven’t read any Agatha Christie for years. I read all her novels when I was a teenager – like many people, her books were my introduction to detective fiction. There have been a couple of recent blog posts about audio books (on Christine Poulson’s blog & here at Bridget’s blog A New Look Through Old Eyes) the comments have been full of great recommendations. Christine mentioned Hugh Fraser’s narration of the Poirot audio books &, as I always enjoyed his portrayal of Captain Hastings in the David Suchet series, I thought I’d try a Christie again after many years.

I loved it. It was the perfect bedtime audio book & I thought Hugh Fraser did a great job. I especially liked his Inspector Japp, he did an excellent imitation of Philip Jackson who played Japp in the series. His Poirot was very subtle, the accent not too overpowering. I’ve put some more Christies into my Audible wishlist. I know that her golden period is considered to be the 1930s-1950s & I’ve avoided any where I can remember the solutions. I’ve chosen After the Funeral, The Hollow, Taken at the Flood, Dumb Witness, The ABC Murders  & Hickory Dickory Dock. Any other classic Christies I should try? I’ve just checked my Poirot DVDs & I have the Suchet version of One, Two, Buckle my Shoe so I may have to have a look & see if they made any major changes to the plot. Lovely way to spend the afternoon. By the way, does anyone have a favourite narrator for the Miss Marple books? I see that most of them are read by Joan Hickson or Stephanie Cole, both of whom I imagine would be perfect. I’ve just listened to Stephanie Cole reading the sample of Sleeping Murder & she has Gwenda’s New Zealand accent just right so that’s a good sign. Then, there’s The Moving Finger read by Richard E Grant, another favourite voice.

The Uninvited – Dorothy Macardle

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Roddy Fitzgerald is a writer & critic, living in London with his sister, Pamela, who has been nursing their father & is mentally & physically worn out. The Fitzgeralds are tired of London life & are on the lookout for a place in the country. On a road trip, they discover Cliff End, a remote, slightly dilapidated but beautiful Georgian house on the coast in Devon. Pamela falls in love immediately & can see the possibilities while Roddy doesn’t think they can afford to buy it. Surprisingly, the owner, Commander Brooke, agrees to sell it for a nominal price, leaving the Fitzgeralds to pay for renovations. The Commander, a gruff man, seems uneasy about the house but says little about its history. He lives with his orphaned granddaughter, Stella, who has led a sheltered life at boarding school. Stella lived at Cliff End as a young child until the tragic death of her mother, Mary, who fell from the cliff. Her father, the artist Llewellyn Meredith, left England & the Commander cared for Stella with the help of Mary’s friend, Miss Holloway. Mary’s death combined with the scandal of Meredith’s relationship with his Spanish model, Carmel, may account for the Commander’s dislike of the house but local rumour whispers of the house being haunted.

Pamela begins the renovations with local help & Roddy winds up their London life. He plans to write a book but soon begins a play. Lizzie Flynn, the Fitzgerald’s Irish housekeeper, completes the household. Lizzie soon picks up the local gossip & her cat, Whiskey, refuses to go upstairs.  Stella is fascinated with the house & the Fitzgeralds are keen to invite her but her grandfather refuses absolutely, without reason, to allow the friendship to develop. Stella does visit the house & the manifestations seem to be stimulated by her presence. Stella’s reveres the mother she can barely remember but the spirit in the house seems to be both loving & vengeful. Is it trying to protect Stella or harm her? However much Roddy & Pamela love the house, there’s an unpleasant atmosphere in some of the rooms. Sobbing in the night & patches of intense cold lead to more frightening manifestations.

My hand groped, trembling, for the light switch; I turned it on and ran bare-foot downstairs. everything was as we had left it: a white cloth, thrown over the laden table, made it like a bier; the nursery was empty, the curtains closed; face powder strewed the dressing table; the scent of mimosa lingered, potent still.

I leaned against the wall, waiting for my heart to recover its natural beat, but a cold shivering had taken me and I longed for my own room. I turned the lights out and tried to go upstairs.

I could not do it; I trembled at the knees and shuddered convulsively, sick with the chill that seemed to shrink the flesh on my bones and wrinkle my skin.My breast was hollow and a breath blew over my heart. If I had not clung to the newel-post, fighting, I would have panicked; I would have shouted for Max or pulled the front door open and torn out of the house. I thought something was coming down the stairs.

The Uninvited is a genuinely creepy tale of ghosts & the influence that the past can have on the present. The familiar tropes of the ghost story – the remote, abandoned house, the noises in the night, patches of unexplained cold, the cat who refuses to go into certain rooms – are there but very much grounded in a domestic story of renovating a house, making a home. Roddy’s growing love for Stella is protective but his desire to rescue her from whatever is haunting the house is combined with a recognition that she is her own person. She has been stifled by her grandfather & by the image of the saintly Mary, encouraged by the sinister Miss Holloway (whose obsession with Mary reminded me of Mrs Danvers) as well as the locals. The Commander’s desire to root out any influence from Stella’s artistic, immoral father is almost pathological.

“She is her father’s daughter. She remembers him; that is the trouble. … She resembles him physically. The influence of that strain in her is so potent that it has been my life’s aim to break it down. God knows, I’ve left nothing undone! When Mary died I retired from the navy and dedicated myself to that purpose – to make Mary’s child the woman Mary would have wished her to be. I paid an exorbitant salary to Mary’s confidential nurse; I surrounded Stella with Mary’s pictures, gave her Mary’s books, sent her to the same school. It was a sacrifice: I missed her. But when she returned home a year ago I was pleased. She would always be without her mother’s grace, charm, beauty, but she was good. She was serious; she carried out her duties conscientiously; she continued her studies under my direction. I planned to take her abroad.”

To combat this stifling atmosphere becomes the goal of both Roddy & Pamela. In the course of this struggle for Stella’s future happiness, they are fighting not only her stubborn grandfather but also the uninvited inhabitants of Cliff End. Their determination to win through & release Stella from the ties of the past leads to a truly exciting climax.

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The Uninvited was made into what is considered one of the best supernatural movies ever made, one of the first to treat ghosts seriously & not just as comic relief. Starring Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp (one of my favourite character actors) & Gail Russell as Stella, it has a screenplay by Dodie Smith (of I Capture the Castle & Look Back with Love fame). I watched the movie first & it was very close to the book. The friends who visit the Fitzgeralds, Roddy’s play writing & most of the locals are left out but that just heightens the solitary atmosphere of the house & the supernatural manifestations. The Irishness is also almost completely removed. Macardle was an Irish writer, very active in the Republican movement, & much is made of the Irishness of the Fitzgeralds in the book. Lizzie’s Catholicism is very potent & more than just peasant superstition (which it tends to be in the movie) & the local priest, Father Anson, has a greater role.

The lovely new edition I read is part of Irish publisher Tramp Press‘s Recovered Voices series (I reviewed the first of the series, A Struggle for Fame by Charlotte Riddell, a couple of years ago). It’s a beautifully produced book with French flaps & an informative introduction by Luke Gibbons.

Because of the Lockwoods – Dorothy Whipple

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Harriet Evans, in her Preface to this edition of Because of the Lockwoods, writes of the “readability factor” in Dorothy Whipple’s work & speculates that she is not better known & valued as a novelist because her books are just so satisfying to read that critics think she can’t be writing “real literature“. Well, I can testify to the unputdownability of her work. It was a very hot day last Saturday & I sat down at about 11am with a glass of iced tea & Because of the Lockwoods . I was at about p130 & I finished the book that evening. Apart from necessary breaks for more iced tea, lunch & opening the door to the cats & trying to convince them that they should stay inside, I read over 300pp in a day. I can’t remember the last time I did that. I kept planning to stop but then “I’ll read just one more chapter. I must find out how Thea gets on at the Pensionnat or whether Martin will accept the dress clothes from Mr Lockwood or will Oliver’s plans for Molly work out?”. In the end I just forgot about the heat & anything else I should have been doing & raced on to the end of a very satisfying novel.

The Hunters & the Lockwoods are neighbours. Richard Hunter’s early death leaves his widow at a loss, emotionally & financially, & she eagerly clutches at the idea that William Lockwood will step in & help her with her finances even though he does this with a very bad grace. Money is going to be tight & Mrs Hunter has three children to bring up so they must sell their house on the pleasant outskirts of Aldworth, a Northern manufacturing town. The house they buy in Byron Place is cramped & inconvenient. The neighbourhood is not what the Hunters have been used to & Mrs Hunter struggles on, trying to make ends meet, keeping her distance from the neighbours. The Hunters are patronised by the Lockwoods, expected to be grateful for invitations to Christmas parties. Mrs Hunter is an ineffectual woman, pathetically grateful for Mrs Lockwood’s cast-off clothing & completely unable to reassess her circumstances & pull herself out of the slump she went into at her husband’s death.

Molly & Martin Hunter are forced to leave school early. Mrs Lockwood finds work for Molly as a governess & Martin, who longs to be a doctor, ends up as a bank clerk. Neither are suited for these jobs but they seem unable to change their circumstances. Thea, the youngest of the Hunter children is a different proposition altogether. Thea resents the Lockwoods & their unwilling patronage. She endured humiliating visits to Mr Lockwood’s office as a child, watched his contemptuous dismissal of her mother & suffered through the torments of social occasions with the monstrously self-satisfied twins Bea & Muriel Lockwood. She manages to stay on at school, convinces her mother to allow her to go to France as an au pair for a year (unfortunately to the same pensionnat as the Lockwoods) &, when that ends disastrously, is the catalyst for the turn around in the family fortunes that comes after much heartache & misery.

Her mother, Molly and Martin wrote every week, mostly to say they really had no news. Their letters seemed to be both wistful and flat. Now that she was at a distance from her family, with only their letters to represent them, she noticed a factor common to all three: a lack of interest in what they were doing, in the way they had to spend their lives. Her mother wasn’t interested in housework, Molly wasn’t interested in governessing, Martin wasn’t interested in the bank. Thea was shocked to make this discovery. Not only was it a waste of life, but she wondered, too, if it was a fault inherent in the family. With anxiety, she examined herself to see if it was in her as well. But though she had to admit to frequent dissatisfaction, resentment, indignation, she didn’t think she could be accused of lack of interest.

Thea is the life force in the Hunter family but it’s Oliver Reade who really makes change a reality through sheer energy & will. When the Reades move into Byron Place they see it as a step up from Gas Street where they had lived in poverty. Oliver’s hard work has taken his mother & sister to a respectable home. The difference in the two families is as simple as their attitude to Byron Place. For the Hunters, it’s a humiliating drop in social status & Mrs Hunter’s pretensions to gentility prevent her from becoming part of the neighbourhood. She’s lonely & her children are unhappy in their uncongenial jobs. For the Reades, it’s an upward move. Oliver pursues Thea & is undeterred by her cold indifference. His attempts to become friends are rejected but he gradually becomes a friend of the family, helping Molly & Martin to eventually break free of the inertia they seem unable to overcome. His attempts to better himself, attending night school & taking elocution lessons are endearing rather than comic & his steadfast love for Thea is very touching. Oliver is successful despite his origins & the Hunter’s superior social class is no help to them without the money to keep up the lifestyle they once had. Eventually Oliver is the catalyst for the tremendous & very satisfying conclusion to the novel when the Lockwoods & the Hunters get their just desserts.

I loved everything about this book. The first sentences set the tone for the relationship between the two families. “Mrs Lockwood decided to invite Mrs Hunter and her children to Oakfield for New Year’s Eve. It would be one way of getting the food eaten up. There was always so much of it during Christmas week, thought Mrs Lockwood with a sense of repletion.” Mrs Lockwood is skewered in those few sentences – her condescension, her canny thrift, her self-satisfaction in her own charity. Who are these Hunters who are to be condescended to? Immediately the reader wants to know & the New Year’s Eve party is so awful that we can’t wait to discover how the Hunters (whose side we’re immediately on) found themselves in such a position. We know from the beginning that Mr Lockwood has indulged in a shady bit of subterfuge to get hold of a paddock adjoining the Hunter’s house that he has always coveted. Part of the reason why we race through the novel is to see just how that dishonesty will be revealed & in what circumstances. Along the way though, we lose sight of it because we’re so involved in Thea’s romance with a young man in Villeneuve, a provincial French town where manners haven’t changed since the 19th century; Martin being taken up by the Lockwoods as a presentable young man to squire the girls around & then secretly falling in love with the youngest daughter, Clare; Molly blossoming when she finds work that suits her; Angela Harvey, a friend of the Lockwoods, defying convention by planning a career on the stage.

Thank goodness Persephone Books have reprinted nearly all Whipple’s novels & short stories. The rediscovery of Dorothy Whipple is emblematic of everything that Nicola Beauman has tried to do since Persephone was founded in 1999. Whipple’s Someone at a Distance was one of the first three Persephones & I can still remember the sheer joy I felt when I realised that there were authors like Whipple, Susan Glaspell, Dorothy Canfield Fisher & Marghanita Laski that I had never heard of but could now read. The beauty of the books as objects just added to my excitement. Harriet Evans’ Preface to this edition of Because of the Lockwoods is a passionate rallying cry for Dorothy Whipple & her place in 20th century fiction. Evans wants Whipple to be up there with Barbara Pym & Georgette Heyer as rediscovered & reclaimed authors now taken seriously by critics as well as fans. The same Preface could be written for all the authors I mentioned above & many others who have been reprinted by Persephone to the delight of lovers of absorbing novels, short stories, memoirs & diaries. I’m so pleased that this was the first book I finished this year. It’s a wonderful start to my year of reading from my tbr shelves & getting back to the books, the authors & the imprints that I’ve neglected over the past few years.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case – Anthony Berkeley

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At a meeting of the Crimes Circle, convenor Roger Sheringham has a surprise for his fellow club members. He has invited Chief Inspector Moresby to outline the circumstances of an unsolved murder to the Circle with the idea that the members of the Circle do some investigating of their own. Scotland Yard have run out of ideas & are left with the unsatisfying theory that the murder was committed by a lunatic. Sheringham believes that, with the facts laid out as known by the police, the solution can be found & who better to put their minds to the task than the members of the Crimes Circle, six people who have passed the stringent conditions of membership.

Joan Bendix has been poisoned by liqueur chocolates laced with benzadrine, handed to her by her husband, Graham, who also fell ill after eating some of the sweets. However, it seems that Joan was not the intended victim. Graham had been given the chocolates at his club by Sir Eustace Pennefather. The box arrived in the post as a publicity stunt & Sir Eustace had been only too pleased to hand them on to Bendix who needed a box of chocolates for his wife in settlement of a bet they had made at the theatre the previous night. Sir Eustace is an unpleasant man with many enemies & it seems that Joan has been the victim of a tragic accident. The police have followed up the clues – the chocolates; the letter, written on the letterhead of the Mason’s, the confectioners; the wrapping paper – but every lead has become a dead end.

The members of the Circle – novelists Sheringham, Morton Harrogate Bradley & Alicia Dammers, QC Sir Charles Wildman, playwright Mrs Fielder-Flemming & Mr Ambrose Chitterick – take up the investigation with varying degrees of enthusiasm & confidence. Several of the group know the Bendixs & Sir Eustace. They sympathise with the Bendixs who seemed to be a very happy, prosperous couple. On the other hand, Sir Eustace was widely disliked, particularly for his predatory relationships with women. His wife was in the process of divorcing him & the circle of potential suspects for his murder would have been wide. The Circle have a week to formulate their theories & then they will reconvene to outline them & do their best to convince their fellows & Scotland Yard that they have cracked the case.

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This is an immensely enjoyable & inventive story, rightly called one of the standout novels of the Golden Age of detective fiction. It began life as a short story & I may have read that at some stage as one of the theories sounded very familiar to me. Then again, it became such a famous book that I could have read another mystery using one of these ideas. Berkeley was certainly profligate with his ideas to use so many terrific plots in just one book because all the theories, as I was reading them, sounded more or less convincing. Even the outlining of the case so many times as each theory is explained didn’t pall because each person came to the case from a different angle & with such a range of motives from jealousy to gain to a lust for killing. The range of accused murderers also held some surprises with a final, satisfying twist as the murderer is revealed. I also enjoyed reading about the real-life cases that each member uses to reinforce his or her idea. This book really is a master class in writing sparkling fiction with humour & ingenuity.

This edition of The Poisoned Chocolates Case, reprinted as part of the immensely successful British Library Crime Classics series, also includes two additional solutions to the mystery. In the 1970s, Christianna Brand (best known for Green for Danger, one of my favourite mystery novels) wrote a new solution for a US edition of the novel. This is reprinted here for the first time along with yet another solution by Martin Edwards, consultant for the series & author of The Golden Age of Murder. Anthony Berkeley, who also published as Francis Iles, is probably the least well-known of the great Golden Age writers. He was a complicated man & Martin’s book is invaluable reading if you want to know more about him. Interestingly he had the idea for the Detection Club, a dining club for mystery writers that survives to this day, based on the Crimes Circle in this novel.

If you’re a fan of Golden Age mysteries, & haven’t yet read The Poisoned Chocolates Case, you’ve missed out on a treat. On a purely aesthetic level, the British Library have produced an attractive book with beautiful cover art based on a travel poster of the day. No wonder the Golden Age is popular again.