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Monday, October 23, 2017

Agatha Christie's Vital Statistics

Actor Maurice Denham, as Mr. Parker Pyne

"One day, having lunch at a Corner House, I was enraptured by a conversation on statistics going on at a table behind me. I turned my head and caught a vague glimpse of a bald head, glasses, and a beaming smile--I caught sight, that is, of Mr. Parker Pyne." 
--Agatha Christie, from the introduction to the 1953 Penguin U.K. edition of Parker Pyne Investigates

As an American, when I read the opening sentences of Agatha Christie's introduction, I have one small question. What is a Corner House? It's a colloquial term that no doubt meant something to her English readers, but conveys little to someone from the United States. At a guess, I'd say it referred to a public house, or a tea shop. But perhaps I'm wrong on both counts. Perhaps there was a chain of lunch restaurants called Corner House that was popular in England at that time. That would certainly explain why Christie capitalized the term.

At any rate, Mr. Parker Pyne initially seems the opposite of Hercule Poirot. In his first story, "The Case of the Middle-aged Wife," he's not an investigator, at least not in the sense of Miss Marple or Poirot. He doesn't work from a crime backwards, tracing the events that led to a final result. Instead, he contemplates existing facts and circumstances, and projects a probable outcome. Whereas Agatha Christie's most famous detectives spend their days contemplating the past, Parker Pyne gazes into the future, considering likely outcomes, and how best to tailor those outcomes to suit his client's needs. 

Did I mention his clients? Oh yes, Parker Pyne uses his years of being shut up in a government office, and his formidable talent for statistics, as an enterprising businessman. Unlike Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, he doesn't wait for his clients to seek him out. Instead, he advertises for them. Unlike a detective, he operates more as a therapist. His advertisement: 

Are you Happy? If not, consult me.

Simple, brief, and to the point. And again, unlike Hercule Poirot (and a certain literary creation of Arthur Conan Doyle, whom Christie continually references in her mystery novels), Mr. Parker Pyne doesn't pick and choose those he would deign to help. He doesn't demand that a case "interest" him. In fact, he'd prefer that his clients have problems he can sort into easily definable categories. For example, when the middle-aged wife walks into his office in the first story, he's happy that her ailment fits neatly into a previously categorized course of treatment. 

That is not to say that her easy-to-solve problem earns the middle-aged wife a discount on his usual fee. If Parker Pyne decides he can help a person be happy, he will help him or her, but only if the client is willing to pay his fee. His fee, incidentally, is nonnegotiable. The cost is substantial, the cost equivalent to what the client might pay to have a doctor perform an operation. The client must pay the stated fee in advance, and hope that Mr. Pyne's operation will be successful. If Mr. Pyne's methods fail to achieve the desired end, and the client is still unhappy at the end of the "treatment", well, not all medical procedures are successful either, are they?

I can't help but wonder how Hercule Poirot would view Parker Pyne. Would he see him as a manipulator, as someone who preys on the weaknesses of others? As a mercenary, even? Or would he view the statistician as a worthy member of England's service industry, providing valuable services to the community. Imagine the two meeting, perhaps at a "Corner House", and having lunch together. Parker Pyne's enthusiasm for statistics would doubtless bring a smile to Hercule Poirot's face. As to the nature of his services, the prices he charges, and the feelings of those he manipulates to achieve his client's desired results, Poirot's smile might fade a trifle, or perhaps disappear all together. 

What do you think? Is Mr. Parker Pyne a benefit to the community? And would Hercule Poirot esteem or detest him? It's a worthy scenario to contemplate. It might take some effort to envision, but who knows? Following the prescribed procedure might even make you happy!

Dragon Dave

Monday, September 25, 2017

Tommy Beresford's Secret To Success

10 Downing St
The Home of the British Prime Minister

Agatha Christie's description of Tommy Beresford is anything but complimentary. His bared head revealed a shock of exquisitely slicked-back red hair. His face was pleasantly ugly— nondescript, yet unmistakably the face of a gentleman and a sportsman. His clothes are threadbare, and he has little money. Yet, along with her more popular creation, Hercule Poirot, Tommy would go on to have some fantastic success in solving mysteries. In fact, he and his friend Prudence "Tuppence" Cowley have such great initial success in the novel The Secret Adversary that Mr. Carter, in charge of the British Secret Service, decides to enlist their services on an unofficial basis. He will quietly bankroll their efforts, but if they get into trouble, they are on their own.

And get into trouble they do. First Tommy goes missing for days, when he is held hostage by agents of the mysterious Mr. Brown. When he returns to the Ritz Hotel, where he and Tuppence have been staying, he arrives within minutes of Tuppence going out. And, as it happens, she was lured out by a fake message, and consequently goes missing for days. So Tommy must go out and search for her. After a week of fruitless searching, he nearly gives her up, until he stumbles upon a clue that gives him hope.

So when Mr. Carter must appraise the British Prime Minister on the current status of their efforts to recover these politically damaging secret documents, who does he report on? James Bond, or one of his 00 associates? Some long-term, commissioned officer in the Secret Service? No. According to Mr. Carter, the person with the most likelihood of recapturing the secret papers, it would seem, is none other than unofficial, untrained Tommy Beresford. 

What's he like, this lad?" the Prime Minister asks. Mr. Carter responds:

"Outwardly, he's an ordinary clean-limbed, rather block-headed young Englishman. Slow in his mental processes. On the other hand, it's quite impossible to lead him astray through his imagination. He hasn't got any— so he's difficult to deceive. He worries things out slowly, and once he's got hold of anything he doesn't let go."

So there you have it: the secret to success in life, direct from Agatha Christie's pen. You don't have to be rich, or experienced, or handsome, or even particularly imaginative. You just have to think things through to the best of your ability, and never give up on what you decide to do. 

Yeah. That's not difficult at all...

Dragon Dave

Monday, September 18, 2017

Captain Hastings' Inspiring Counterparts

Agatha Christie's first published novel was The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The story introduced the world to Hercule Poirot, a former Belgian policeman, now a refugee in England. Her second published novel, The Secret Adversary, took a very different look at the detective novel. Instead of having a professional solving crimes, this time two young amateurs do the sleuthing. Their names are Tommy and Tuppence, and their only criterion for solving crimes is their desire to do so. Yet, in their own way, they prove just as effective as their better known predecessor, Hercule Poirot.

As in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie begins her novel by rooting it in real life events. This time, it's not Belgian refugees fleeing the Third Battle of Ypres, but the sinking of RMS Lusitania. While there was an espionage element to The Mysterious Affair at Styles, this time that aspect is even more pronounced. A government official entrusts secret papers to a young American woman, believing she has a better chance of surviving and reaching England than himself. Although the young woman reaches England, she goes missing shortly thereafter. In addition to locating the girl, the British government desperately wants those classified documents. When an international espionage organization threatens to publicize these papers, the English intelligence community must martial all its resources to reclaim the papers before they can be published, or risk riots, a governmental shakeup, even war.

Usually, government officials would call upon someone with a great deal of experience to investigate, such as Hercule Poirot, and his literary predecessor, Sherlock Holmes. Instead, two out-of-work young people stumble upon the mystery of the missing girl. After they make a promising start, the British Intelligence community bankrolls Tommy and Tuppence investigative efforts. 

Agatha Christie began The Mysterious Affair at Styles with Captain Arthur Hastings pondering what he'll do after the war. One idea he considers is becoming a detective. However, Poirot's brilliance puts him to shame, and the story suggests that solving crimes is best left to the professional. With Tommy and Tuppence, Agatha Christie places the everyman in the role of detective. Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes may not think much about Captain Arthur Hastings and Doctor John Watson as detectives, but former WWI soldier Tommy Beresford and war volunteer Prudence "Tuppence" Cowley use their imagination, common sense, enthusiasm and self-belief to uncover clues and make progress in their investigations. 

The effect upon the reader is stunning. We may not be dazzled by Tommy and Tuppence, but we share a camaraderie with them. Most of us could never honestly view Hercule Poirot as an intellectual equal, but we can relate to Tommy and Tuppence. We can see ourselves filling their shoes, using our own skills of observation and ingenuity to solve crimes. Like Captain Arthur Hastings, they believe they can become detectives if they really want to. Unlike The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Secret Adversary doesn't merely entertain: it inspires and empowers us. Agatha Christie's second novel suggests that if we can marshal sufficient belief in ourselves, we can accomplish the seemingly impossible. And maybe, in so doing, we can change our world for the better.

The world can always use brilliant people like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. But I'd also like to think we could use more people like Tommy and Tuppence, don't you?

Dragon Dave

Friday, August 19, 2016

Mr Davenheim's Clocks

When reconstructing the events leading up to a murder, it's important to get a record of what took place when. Clocks feature prominently in Agatha Christie's stories, particularly her early novels. In The Murder on the Links and The Big Four, a broken clock suggests the time of a murder. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, a doctor who mends clocks will accompany Hercule Poirot on his investigation. 

The TV productions didn't always use all the little clues Christie sprinkled into her stories. One of the casualties was often clocks (or broken clocks), as well as the recorded times, which led the police to suspect or arrest people for a given murder. But the productions often showcased beautiful clocks in people's homes, as set dressings for these period productions. In "The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim," we find a smart mantle clock in the large, modern home of a bank executive who has gone missing. But it's far from the most impressive clock in this rich man's house.

This is the one I really like. We see Mrs Davenheim standing near it when she's waiting for her husband to emerge from his study, as well as when he leaves her to walk into the village. But we don't get to see its entire grandeur yet.

Later, when Captain Hastings arrives to question Mrs Davenheim on behalf of Poirot, accompanied by the stalwart Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard, we see Mrs Davenheim lighting a cigarette before this clock. We see that it is a pedestal clock. Its structure and ornamentation are reminiscent of a Greek temple. I long to see more of it, but then Mrs Davenheim turns away from the mirror to see her visitors, and the camera turns away with her.

The only time we see the entire clock is on the night of Mr Davenheim's disappearance. His wife is calling the police, to ask for assistance in locating him. She stares through the open blinds, through the window, and down the road to the village. While she's hoping to see her husband emerge from the darkness, I'm hoping to get a close up view of the clock. Sadly, this is as close as we get, and no amount of enlarging or zooming will give us a really clear view of this clock. But one thing is certain. In addition to losing a lovely wife, and a spacious home, Mr Davenheim lost two really nice clocks the day he disappeared. 

Dragon Dave

Monday, August 1, 2016

Agatha Christie's Hotel on the Moors

I've recently learned that the Moorland Hotel at Hay Tor, or Moorlands House, was sold earlier this year to a company called Hieronymous Gruff Limited, which sounds as if it must be associated with Harry Potter in some way. The company plans to renovate the hotel, and even hire actors and drama students to help energize the new hotel's ambiance. 

When my wife and I planned our trip to England last year, we tried to book a room in Moorlands House. After all, to stay in the hotel where Agatha Christie stayed and wrote would have to be inspiring, right? But it had no vacancies, so we stayed in a nice, homey Bed & Breakfast nearby. But I couldn't leave Hay Tor without stopping by Moorlands House, and taking a quick photograph of the hotel Agatha Christie stayed in. There, in a room without a computer, or even electricity, she picked up her pen, and a pad of paper, and wrote a major portion of her rough draft of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in 1916. Or, as she put it, "I used to write laboriously all morning until my hand ached."


Then, in the afternoon, she would take a walk across the moors, and think about what she had just written, as well as how to carry the story forward. No doubt during these walks she also climbed nearby Hay Tor numerous times, and gazed around the surrounding moors.

I'd like to return to Devon, and Dartmoor, to explore more of Agatha Christie's English landscape. If, in a few years time, I were to book a night in Moorlands House, I wonder if I might find a well dressed Belgian refugee, with an exquisitely tailored mustache, working there. Or perhaps a handsome Army officer walking with a slight limp, as a result of his WWI injuries? I'd like that. It'd certainly be something to see.

If you go there before I can return, let me know what the revamped hotel was like, okay?

Dragon Dave

Related Internet Links:

Hay Tor Hotel Sale

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Arthur Hastings & the Battle of Messines

Recently, a reader wrote in to enhance my understanding of the setting for The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The clues she caught, but I had missed, set Agatha Christie's novel in 1917. Initially, this confused me, as Agatha Christie wrote her novel in 1916. She booked a room in the Moorland Hotel at Hay Tor in Dartmoor, and finished her novel. Unless she could hop into Doctor Who's TARDIS, and travel forward in time, how could she know what the next year would bring, and set the story, during World War I, in a specific month? 

But then I thought about the situation some more. Although she wrote the first draft of her novel in 1916, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was not published in the United States until 1920. (It wasn't published in her home country of England until 1921!) This means that, during 1917, 1918, or 1919, or perhaps even 1920, she could look back on WWI, how it affected her home town of Torquay, and decide when to "set" her story. 

So she wasn't envisioning the future when she wrote her first draft. Which is too bad, for those who are looking for more links between Doctor Who and Agatha Christie, aside from those covered in "The Unicorn and the Wasp," in which the Tenth Doctor encountered Agatha Christie during a crucial period of her life.

Agatha Christie, Donna, and the Doctor

Anyway, back to Captain Hastings, and how Agatha Christie's decision to set The Mysterious Affair at Styles means for his life.

In the TV production of "The Mysterious Affair at Styles", Captain Hastings watches Black & White Newsreel Footage of the "New Flanders Offensive." 

At first, I linked this footage with Battle of Passchendaele, or the Third Battle of Ypres, which occurred from late July until November 1917. But Christie (as Hastings) writes that Hastings leaves his English convalescent hospital and travels to Styles House on July 5, 1917. A review of the newsreel footage suggests that what Hastings was actually watching was the Battle of Messines, in which the British army set a series of explosives beneath German lines, and turned a defensive ridge into a series of craters. Although only lasting seven days, from 7 to 14 June 1917, it was one of those complicated, bloody land battles of WWI that caused thousands of injuries and deaths. 

Somehow, this makes it easier for me to imagine what Arthur Hastings is feeling. He's just spent seven months or so in this "rather depressing Convalescent Home," as he puts it. Now (in the TV adaptation) he sees all the deaths and injuries his fellow British soldiers are suffering. Surrounded by so many soldiers suffering, and presumably dying, this hits him hard. 

He's got to wonder how many more troops will be evacuated to stay in the place where he's been recuperating, and how many of those will die instead of getting better. And this is just from a little, preliminary battle, which involves getting British troops into better strategic positions, so that the real battle, The Third Battle of Ypres, (or, if you prefer, the slaughter) can begin.

Dragon Dave

Related Poirot And Friends entries
Arthur Hastings, a Beautiful Lady & the Battle of the Somme

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Strong Women, Humor & Homosexuality in the Library

Warning: This article contains spoilers!

Recently, I watched a TV adaptation of the Agatha Christie story "The Body in the Library." This production featured Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple, and the vivacious Joanne Lumley as her friend Dolly Bantry. I've loved Geraldine McEwan's work ever since I saw her playing Lucia in a London Weekend Television production of "Mapp And Lucia," and also as reclusive Miss Farnaby in the Fantasy Sitcom "Mulberry." In many ways, she seemed a perfect fit for the character of Miss Marple, but I always had trouble seeing her as that character. Ms McEwan must have agreed, for she left the series after playing the character for a mere two years. 

One thing I noted in the TV story was how many strong female character there were. Of course there's Miss Marple, who dresses in dowdy clothes and mumbles strange phrases that no one understands. As she seems so odd, few people initially respect her. But in the end, she solves the murder, and proves all the male police wrong, so there! Then there's her friend Dolly Bantry, who is thrilled to have found a corpse in her library. How delicious: a body found in her own library! A murder for her friend to solve! 

Hercule Poirot's library
 in Torquay, England

She empowers Miss Marple, taking her out to a seaside resort, and putting her up in the hotel where the dead woman worked, in order to tag along, and assist her friend, the great but quiet detective, in every possible way. We view Dolly as extraordinarily strong, because her husband retreats from the world when a body of a beautiful young woman, and all that implies, is found in his house.

There's the dead woman, who was so extraordinarily successful in playing up to an elderly man that he decided to adopt her, and leave her a fortune in his will. And there are the two villains, who turn out to be two women, who have fallen in love with each other. They kill the money-hungry young woman, and attempt to kill the rich old man, in the hopes of getting their hands on the money. Really, all the key characters are female in the production, with the exception of the police, who are all male.

For their adaptation, the production decided to do something modern and daring. They updated Christie's story to make the two villains female, and unite them in a homosexual love affair. I can't say this is really a huge change, when you consider how the Hercule Poirot stories starring David Suchet were adapted for TV. I suppose it did portray these two women as stronger, as they indulged in a love affair, despite how society of that time would view such a relationship. It also highlighted their intellect, in that they committed such an intricately planned crime, which called for great ingenuity, and a lot of work, to pull off.

Ultimately, the production left me dissatisfied, however. Although they left the revelation until the end, the homosexual angle struck an inauthentic note, and seemed out of character with Christie's writings. The production also stressed sexuality in other ways, most explicitly in the character of a male dancer at the hotel, who also had sex with any female guest willing to give him money. He seemed unapologetic in this regard, as if flaunting his liaisons as a virtue. Overall, the adaptation reminded me of a big screen movie, edited for pace and filled with humor. It unreeled too quickly for a mystery, and kept me laughing constantly. 

Sadly, Geraldine McEwan has left this mortal plane, so I cannot ask her why she left the series, and such a popular character, after a mere two years. But the changes to this Christie story, and the ample humor, left me feeling as if the production were more spoof than serious. After all, if you don't really love and respect the original material, you're likely to take far greater liberties with it, such exploiting the story's humorous potential, playing up the sexuality, and changing the identity of the murderers. 

I wonder if Ms McEwan had similar doubts about the character she portrayed, and how those productions were updated for modern sensibilities. While I cannot judge a series based upon one story, I must say that this production of "The Body in the Library" left me cold. 

And that's a horrible thing to say, especially in regard to writer Agatha Christie, her great detectives Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, and in association such a wonderful thing as a library.

Dragon Dave