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Monday, January 15, 2018

Danger At Beacon Cove Part 4

The image of Agatha Christie as a daredevil was not one I expected to find when I visited her hometown. It may well be I am overestimating the dangers of Beacon Cove. But without knowing more about this sheltered strand of beach filled with a plethora of rocks and boulders, and observing the way the ocean interacted with the shore at different times of the day, let alone in different seasons, I'd be leery of swimming there. Wouldn't you?

Agatha Christie wrote an astonishing number of books during her lifetime. 
When it comes to being a writer, and knowing what she was about, she totally nailed it. In terms of her storytelling ability, she got everything right. Her books and stories represent the epitome of the literary art form. She became, in every sense of the word, the author all others can only aspire to become. That's quite an accomplishment for a modest young woman to achieve in the male dominated 

Each day, Agatha Christie faced the daunting task of filling the empty page. In all likelihood, she started all those stories without knowing exactly what their final shape would be. Through braving each day's unknown dangers, she completed the rough drafts of those manuscripts. 

But she didn't stop there. Christie carried each and every story through the entire revision process. With each rewrite, she massaged and refined her stories into their ultimate, finished form. Then she battled her publishers to get her stories, told her way, into the hands of the public. 

All told, her publishing record suggests a life of constant struggle to create, to refine, and perfect. It tells of battles waged and won, and sometimes lost. Her vast, storytelling legacy paints a portrait of an exceptionally brave woman. 

Let others contest the dangerous waters of Beacon Cove. As for me, I'm content to remember the beauty I found there, and the pleasant afternoon I spent sketching what I saw. The memory of that experience, and how it colored my perception of her, will add greater depth and meaning the next time I open one of her books, and savor the results of the hard-won battles she fought over the final, finished pages. 

In fact, maybe I'll pick up one right now. How about you?

Dragon Dave

Monday, January 8, 2018

Danger at Beacon Cove Part 3

Standing up in the amphitheater, gazing down at Beacon Cove

There's a simplicity of style to Agatha Christie's books and short stories that belies the deep structure she built into her fiction. Sadly, that easy readability does not apply to her autobiography. Instead, Christie wanders along, relating reminiscences as she saw fit, whether they followed or backtracked in time. This is a real shame, as unlike her mysteries, it makes the narrative more difficult to follow. I started her autobiography a year ago, and enjoyed the portion I read. Then life through me a curveball, as it always does, knocked me out of the book for one reason or another, and I never came back.

Google "Agatha Christie Beacon Cove" and you'll find photos of this beautiful beach from a hundred years ago. Do a little digging, and you'll realize that Beacon Cove was a Women's Only beach during the author's childhood. She would have used one of those Victorian wheeled bathing machines to enter and exit the water! It's hard to imagine a bathing machine rolling up and down Beacon Cove without constantly breaking a wheel or axle on the boulders. Perhaps the city regularly trucked in sand to make the beach flatter back then. Either that, or Beacon Cove has suffered a great deal of erosion since Christie's childhood. But alas, that was over a century ago.

Do a little more online investigating, and you'll discover that, as a child, Christie didn't just wade into the water and squeal. She didn't just splash around with her friends. She liked to swim, really swim in the ocean. She saved her young nephew from drowning once, when he got into trouble at Beacon Cove. Later, during her world travels, she even took up surfing, and became one of the first British women to do so. When a particularly strong wave ripped off her swimsuit once, she crept out of the water when no one was looking. After she dressed, she went off to the shops, bought another swimsuit, and got back on her surfboard. 

I admire Christie for the way she wrote her fiction. Even if her autobiography has proven a  tougher sell, what I've learned online has made me want to delve back to it. She seems like a writer who didn't just sit back and observe life going on around her, but one who continually tested her limits. 

I wonder if she ever surfed at Beacon Cove?

Dragon Dave

Monday, January 1, 2018

Danger at Beacon Cove Part 2

According to the city of Torquay, Agatha Christie's hometown, Beacon Cove was one of the writer's favorite bathing spots. It's not hard to see why, given the beauty of the surrounding scenery. Nor on the afternoon we visited were we alone. A mother and her child joined us to share this quiet spot, sheltered by the wind, in tourist-popular Torquay. Like me, the woman sat on one of the large boulders, appreciating the scenery while her child played. Like my wife, the boy enjoyed exploring this rock hound's paradise.

Beacon Cove is no ordinary shingle beach. Round boulders and sharp rocks sit upon the shingle, or thrust up through the pebbles. Falling down, while walking over such an uneven surface, seems likely, especially after swimming, when your muscles are tired, and your sense of equilibrium has been weakened by all the motion of the waves.  Yet the city of Torquay has built an amphitheater here, so presumably Beacon Cove still proves popular with regulars and tourists alike.

But then, the Roman gladiatorial games were popular too. The masses crowded into amphitheaters to cheer on battles between strong and valiant souls. Inevitably, some of the competitors ended up being carried off the field during the course of their battles. So what could be more fitting than the city of Torquay building a concrete amphitheater where spectators can gather, and watch contestants brave the waves of Beacon Cove? Do modern crowds cheer when a swimmer emerges uninjured? Do the onlookers sigh or weep when a strong wave slams a swimmer into the rocks?

In her autobiography, and in the stories told about her by others, Agatha Christie seems like a level headed woman. The stories she constructed are charming and logical. Today they are regarded as paragons of the Cozy Mystery mini genre, in which violence is minimized, and a point of trauma is immediately followed by a scene in which the reader's sensibilities are soothed and comforted. 

Beacon Cove forms a strange contrast to the popular image of Christie as a woman of quiet, refined sensibilities. But perhaps she came here regularly to experience the thrill, and the danger, of swimming in this picturesque cove. Perhaps she learned how to comfort and sooth the reader by helping those injured by the waves and the rocks at Beacon Cove.

Does that image of Agatha Christie jar with your perception of her? Or does it gel with your knowledge of how adventurous she was, given the dangerous countries the writer visited in her travels, and the less-than-safe archeological digs Christie participated in with her second husband?

Dragon Dave

Monday, December 25, 2017

Danger at Beacon Cove Part 1

I mentioned awhile back that I've been corresponding with a man in prison. Over the course of our letters, I've discovered that he really likes seeing photos of beaches. So in recent letters, I've taken to sharing a photo or two of a particular beach I've visited, and telling him a little about it. For this month's letter, I chose to share with him our visit to Torquay, Agatha Christie's hometown. 

During our trip to England in 2015, we visited Beacon Cove. According to tourist information compiled by the city of Torquay, this was a beach where Agatha Christie liked to bathe. This secluded spot sits well below the level of the road. A series of large, wide concrete steps lead down from the road to the beach, forming a semicircular amphitheater. People can sit down on these giant-size steps, and watch others playing on the beach, or swimming in the water. 

It was the middle of the afternoon the day we visited. Although a cool, strong breeze blew along the coast, the surrounding cliffs sheltered us from the worst of it. Although I was a little tired from our day of exploration, and had already worked on two sketches that day, the rugged cliffs, the colorful rocks, and the trees and plants sprouting from the precarious ledges inspired me. So I sat on one of those giant concrete steps, took out my sketchbook, and over the course of an hour or so, drew this picture. 

While my wife enjoys sketching and painting, she also enjoys wandering along the beach and studying the rocks and shells. She's usually more interested in the rocks she finds than the shells, and tends to take a few home with her as souvenirs. The beaches of England are perfect for her, as many tend to be shingle beaches, meaning they're covered in pebbles rather than sand.

During our trips to England, one thing I can never get used to is the popularity of shingle beaches. Wouldn't you need to wear shoes all the time, whether you were on the beach or in the water? And what happens when you're out enjoying the water, and a wave unexpectedly picks you up and slams you down on the rocks? Doesn't that seem dangerous to you? 

According to the city of Torquay, which has included Beacon Cove on the Agatha Christie Mile, this rock-strewn shingle beach was one of her favorites. Yet I can't imagine her most famous creations, the sophisticated Hercule Poirot, or the brainy spinster Miss Marple bathing here. Can you?

Dragon Dave

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