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Monday, June 4, 2018

Hyoscine, Amorite, the Mousetrap, and Oh Yes, More Spills!

In Agatha Christie's Poison Garden
Torre Abbey, Torquay, England

In Agatha Christie's play Black Coffee, the Amory family finds a selection of drugs previously kept by Edna, one of Sir Claud Amory's daughters. Like the author, Edna worked in a dispensary during World War I, during which she accumulated this cache. Since the war, Edna has settled in India, while her father Sir Claud, the famed scientist, has worked on a formula to split the atom. 

Among "the spoils of war," as the family members term the collection, they find Iodine, Castor Oil, Morphine, and a drug called Hyoscine. Dr. Carelli, a houseguest, states that an overdose of Hyoscine would bring no pain, but merely a dreamless sleep from which one would never awaken. Lucia, the daughter-in-law of Sir Claud, is seen taking some of the Hyoscine pills. 

After Sir Claud dies, the doctor pronounces that the scientist was poisoned. Naturally, the only thing that stands between Lucia and a murder charge is Hercule Poirot.

Deadly Nightshade, from which Hyoscine is made,
Torre Abbey, Torquay, England

According to Matthew Pritchard, Agatha Christie's grandson, the author wrote Black Coffee in 1929 after a stage adaptation of her novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd disappointed her. The play, adapted to novel form by Charles Osborne, offers a unique and interesting insight to the author's views on life, as well as the consciousness of the age. Most of us think of the Manhattan Project in the 1940s as the beginning and end of the development of the atomic bomb. Yet a decade-and-a-half before the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan during World War II, Christie's character Sir Claud is working on a formula for splitting the atom.

While his family view him as stern, stingy, reclusive figure, the world cherishes the scientist as a benefactor, despite the destructive nature of his research. Sir Claud dubs his finished formula Amorite, which seems odd, as most people know that the Spanish word "amor" is translated as love. The world loves Sir Claud Amory, and in return, he will share the fruits of his labor, Amorite, with the world? While making social commentary on human nature, Christie is unknowingly foretelling how the fruits of military researchers will blossom in the future.

As in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Hercule Poirot visits the grand country house. There, he cannot help rearranging unsymmetrical items on a mantlepiece. Again, the item that concerns him most is a spill vase. Every time he enters the room, he sees the spill vase has been moved. At the novel's climax, he connects one of the witnesses' comments with the rolled up scrap paper used to transfer fire from fireplace to fireplace. "What is it I have in this vase?" he asks his friend and companion Hastings.

"Why, spills, of course," Captain Hastings replies.

"No, mon ami, it is cheese," Poirot replies. "You use it to bait a mousetrap."

In the early 1950s, Christie wrote her most famous play. The Mousetrap would go on to become the longest-running play in world history. I've never scene it performed, or read an adaptation. I don't know if it contains Hyoscine, Amorite, or even spills kept in a spill vase above a fireplace. But twenty years earlier, Christie seems to be sowing creative seeds she will reap two decades later when she likens the spills to cheese for a mousetrap.

And as for those paper spills, which people used to save money over the more expensive matches? After Hercule Poirot saves Lucia from a charge of murder, the famous scientist's daughter-in-law lights a match, uses it to burn the spill, and then tosses the burning paper into the fireplace. How's that for taking family story elements, and presenting them in a new and interesting way?

Dragon Dave

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