2020-10-21

Agatha Christie 100 - Nemesis

The last written of the Miss Marple mysteries, though there is still one to go after this one, this might have been a better final to the elderly lady's career than what was actually published last.



Miss Marple is saddened to read in the newspaper that her old friend Mr. Rafiel (of A Caribbean Mystery fame) has passed away, but equally astonished when his lawyers inform her that he has one final task for her. It turns out that he booked her a coach trip through the English countryside. And now Miss Marple needs to find out exactly what Mr. Rafiel wanted and how the coach trip fits in with those wishes.

As I said in the introduction above, this would have been more suitable as Miss Marple's final case than Sleeping Murder, at least in most respects. As with many of her late career offerings, this feels rather woolly and meandering almost throughout, though there is an interesting plot beneath it all.

Coming into this re-read I had fairly high expectations on this one, because I remembered it as a pretty good story. I did feel less impressed during this read, though. I speculated earlier that I might have been getting used to Christie's tangents and digressions, but with this one I again felt a bit annoyed. There was one instance during the final explanations where Miss Marple explains something twice, and the second time the listeners react as if they'd never heard that information before. Some editing would have been good here.

Also, my perception was probably coloured by the fact that I felt that the culprit was fairly obvious the whole time - somewhat unfairly, perhaps, because I don't remember it that way from previous reads. The attempts at diverting the reader's suspicions elsewhere didn't really convince me this time.

But nevertheless, while I was less impressed with this than with, for example, Third Girl, it's still a fairly decent mystery and an enjoyable read, if too drawn out. Miss Marple's claims of being a Nemesis seem all the more apt after the dénouement of this one.

I'll award this a somewhat below average rating of 36 out of 100.

1973 1976

Another title with just two Swedish editions, perhaps a bit surprisingly - this novel has a better reputation than most of Christie's late career works. The title is, perhaps less surprisingly, exactly the same in Swedish as in English - I mean, the Greek goddess has the name she has.

The first of the covers is a direct steal from the first British edition. A pretty clever image with a ball of yarn and a scarf forming a question mark - good stuff. Then we have the Delfinserien cover - only 44 years old by now, and the one I own - which is all right. Per Åhlin has modelled his Marple on Margaret Rutherford, but as he couldn't have known that Joan Hickson would become the ultimate Marple, that's not his fault. Perhaps a bit too cluttered with all the greenery, but the greenhouse is important to the backstory, so that's okay.

2020-10-16

Agatha Christie 100 - Hallowe'en Party

Poirot encroaches on Miss Marple's territory, the village mystery, in this, Christie's final 60s novel.



At a party for kids and teenagers, 13-year-old Joyce Reynolds is eager to impress the visiting celebrity, stating that once she saw a murder. The others profess not to believe her, but when she turns up dead later, the visiting mystery writer, a certain Ariadne Oliver, takes her story to her old friend, Hercule Poirot. And now he needs to sort out not only who killed Joyce but also which murder it was indeed she saw...

I found this story pretty good, all things said. Like several other Christie novels, this is another mystery that harks back to an older crime which affects the events of the story. Also like many late career Christie novels, it's a bit woolly and long-winded at times, but it's less annoying here - or perhaps I've just become used to these longueurs by now (always a hazard when reading an author's works chronologically). But there are genuinely some good bits in this mystery, and there's a particularly great bit of misdirection when a vase is dropped. 

During Christie's last 20 or 30 years of writing, Poirot was often sidelined, but in this one he is front and centre of this story, which is always a good thing. 

This story is partly set in a particular garden, which confused me, because I'd always associated the memory of that setting with Elephants Can Remember. This means that I have no idea whatsoever what will happen in that novel. Ah well, I suppose it's never bad to go into a book not having any idea what it's about...

There are a few things during the final revelations in this novel that should have been mentioned earlier on, but on the whole this is an enjoyable read, although clearly not up to the level of Christie's peak writing. I'll award this a 44 out of 100.

1971 1984

Two Swedish editions for this title, and again it's been a long time since the last one was published... At the time this was first published, Hallowe'en was almost unheard of in Sweden - the Americanisation and commercialisation of Sweden hadn't come very far then - so instead of using the American name for the holiday we used the most similar one we had, resulting in a title that would be something like Murder on All Hallows' Day, were it directly translated into English. At least we got the word "murder" into the title.

Both covers focus on the apples, which is fair since they belong to the most memorable scene in the novel. The first one features that very scene and an outline of Joyce as she's in the middle of the game of bobbing for apples. A pretty good cover, all things said. 

The second cover from the mid 80s is a bit more sparse, just an apple with a worm in it. I would like this one as well - but the typography is really ugly and the colours don't contrast very well.

2020-10-12

Agatha Christie 100 - Endless Night

This non-series title, as opposed to most other Christie non-series novels, is a psychological domestic thriller.


Young Michael Rogers, a restless spirit, becomes enamoured with a specific location called Gipsy's Acre and sees himself living there in a specially built house. He runs into Ellie Guteman, who is also quite taken with the place, and they strike up a relationship. They soon end up married with a house commissioned by a famous architect. But in the neighbourhood lives a Mrs. Lee, a village gypsy who warns them that something evil will happen if they keep on living there...

For such a late career work, this features some of Christie's strongest writing. The narration by Michael feels genuine and the arc of the novel fits perfectly with his characteristics. I've seen that it was one of Christie's own favourites, and I can understand that. It's cleverly done, and the narrative trick is quite devastating.

And yet... I thoroughly dislike this one. I really, REALLY don't like it. This is, as you'll understand, not due to the quality of the writing, because I firmly agree that it's very well done in this respect. But it belongs to a subgenre that I detest - the psychological domestic thriller - and also, I'm not overly fond of having characters with mental problems as villains. I am certain that the effect that it has on me is the one that is intended by the author, but I am not interested in being thus affected.

So, if you feel differently and don't have any issues with this sub-genre, take my ranking with a healthy helping of salt, because to me this is a 4 out of 100.

1968 1987 1988 2014

Oändlig natt is a literal translation of Endless Night, so not much to discuss there. Four editions of this novel from a late stage in Christie's career isn't too bad, all things said. Particularly the fact that there has been a recent edition lends some credence to the commonly held opinion that this is Christie's last halfway decent novel (though personally I disagree, as I rated her previous novel highly).

The late 60s cover is a bit too murky and yet too humorous for my liking. If there is one Christie novel that shouldn't be treated to a cover with a humoristic tinge, I think it's this one.

The paperback edition from 1987 is fairly weird. All those celestial objects really make no sense to me. One year later saw a book club edition, and while the image is fairly appropriate, the typeface is horrible. Not only is it much too large, it doesn't contrast particularly well with the image.

The cover of the latest edition is a bit nondescript, but still probably the best one here. A faint outline of a skull and the flying crow(?) isn't the most original image ever, but at least it's not inappropriate.

2020-10-07

Agatha Christie 100 - Third Girl

Hercule Poirot returns, and this time he needs to sort out a mystery in the middle of the swinging '60s scene.



One day, Poirot receives a visit from a young woman, who first says that she thinks she may have committed a murder and then suddenly simply bursts out "You're too old!" and just as quickly leaves again. Poirot is intrigued (and hurt) and starts looking into the identity of the young woman and what this supposed murder might have been.

Though I remembered the villain's identity, I'd been looking forward to reading this quite a bit, because most of the rest of the plot had escaped me. And on the whole I must say that I was pleasantly surprised. This felt like a much stronger plot than several of the novels that surround it chronologically (The Clocks, At Bertram's Hotel, Hallowe'en Party) and at least on the same level as A Caribbean Mystery

Admittedly, again the mystery hangs on a specific misdirection (or in this case, you might say you get two of the same kind), and you might very well see through it if you're well-read on your Christie tricks, but generally the plot hangs together very well, the developments follow naturally and the ending is quite powerful.

It helps that Poirot is front and centre of this story - Mme Oliver also has a bigger part to play than she's had in previous appearances - and that we get to follow along as he investigates, questions and ruminates. Indeed, one could say that we've rarely been able to follow Poirot's thoughts more closely than in this one. There's a whole section in this novel where the reader gets to see when Poirot simply sits and tries to figure out the puzzle in his head. If you contrast this with the last few Poirot novels, it's quite a startling change.

Yes, it's a bit long-winded at times, and the plot could have been tightened up in places, but I will rate this quite highly for such a late-career mystery. In fact, I'll give this a 68 out of 100.

1967 1974 1988

Another literal translation of this title, though we put it in the definite form (= The Third Girl). As usual with these late career releases, there aren't too many editions of this novel. In fact, even though there was a third edition in the late 80s, it never got a paperback release.

The 60s cover is fine, I guess. Not my favourite drawing style, but I suppose it works. Not sure what the harlequin is doing there, though. Delfinserien's cover from 1974 is a bit strange, to be honest. More of an art piece than a correct depiction of anything in the novel. I wonder why there are two women on the cover...

Finally, there's the 1988 cover. As usual Leslie Quagraine manages to work a skull into the image, this time in the form of a palette. At least the painting connection fits the contents of the novel, and of the covers here, this is the one I like best.

2020-10-02

Agatha Christie 100 - At Bertram's Hotel

Another outing for Miss Marple. This time she's staying at Bertram's Hotel, a fashionable, old-style hotel in London.

Miss Marple has been treated to a stay at Bertram's Hotel by her kind nephew and niece Raymond and Joan. But while she's staying there she is concerned that some things do not seem to be exactly what they look like. And when the police turn their interest towards the goings-on at the hotel, it is lucky that there is a sharp-witted old lady staying there...

As you might have noticed, I had a hard time coming up with a blurb for this novel. That's because it's very hard to say what the story is actually about. For about half the novel or so, nothing much actually happens. 

We get to know a handful of characters around the hotel in question who all do vaguely suspicious things. Then we are introduced to the police who are concerned about several robberies and other bloodless crimes that seem to be planned by some well-hidden mastermind, and their focus soon turns to Bertram's Hotel. And then suddenly (if by suddenly, you mean around two thirds through the novel), there is a murder! 

So, the pacing is fairly off in this story, at least if the reader is expecting a mystery. If instead you want to read reminiscences of how it used to be in the olden days, then this is a book for you! Mind you, it's not just a story of the good old days, Christie is careful to note that the good old days aren't really here again, not even at Bertram's, and perhaps that is for the best - at least in some respects.

Okay, but what about the murder mystery then? Well, what there is of it is fairly good. There's a short story in here that could have been interesting to read. The motive behind the murder is chilling enough and the culprit turns out to be a truly despicable person. There's some cluing as well, and also a piece of misdirection, though we've seen this very type before, so a Christie reader might well pick up on what's actually going on.

But there is mainly an awful lot of padding here. Most of the story here instead revolves around the criminal mastermind and the bloodless crimes committed by a well-organised gang, but unfortunately most of the investigations into these crimes are also carried out behind the scenes. Come the dénouement we are suddenly presented with a lot of facts that we've never been allowed to see, which makes it a lot less exciting to see the conclusions drawn by the police.

As you'll have gathered, this is a bit of a mess. There are several strong sections here, though, and it should definitely not be sorted in with abject failures like Postern of Fate. Most of the story here is at least coherent, if not at all as exciting as it should be. I'll rate this a 26 out of 100.

1966 1968 1974

As you can clearly see, the number of editions have gone down quite a lot for these later titles... (It should be perhaps be mentioned that the final cover variant here has been used over a number of pressings, some of which came in the mid 80s.) Still, no new editions for almost 40 years now. The Swedish title is more or less a direct translation of the original's - we just lost the preposition.

The first cover here is horrible. It looks like something I could draw. Meanwhile, the 1968 cover is extremely unimaginative, but still manages to be better than the previous one.

And finally there's the 1974 cover, which quite obviously is pinched from the British Fontana edition, and is just as obviously miles better than the other two covers, with its evocative focus on a woman's hand and the foggy and wet surroundings.

2020-09-28

Agatha Christie 100 - The Clocks

Poirot acts mainly as an armchair detective in this, his first case of the 60s.


Stenographer Sheila Webb is called out to help a Mrs. Pebmarsh, but when she enters her house, what she finds is a dead man lying in a pool of blood, surrounded by a handful of clocks set to the time 4.13. When she screams and runs out of the house, she encounters Colin Lamb - luckily, he's a friend of Hercule Poirot's and will challenge him to solve the case.

As I mentioned above, Poirot acts mainly in a consulting role here, though it is he who puts together all the clues and reveals the solution. Instead, the main parts of the investigation are carried out by Inspector Hardcastle and Colin Lamb, who works in some kind of intelligence capacity and has his own reasons for being in the neighbourhood where the murder took place (and appears to be the son of good old Inspector Battle). Both these characters are quite likeable and it's a pity that we didn't get to meet any of them later.

The case itself is a bit so-so, as well as the narrative structure. There's a bit too much focus on Colin's search for foreign agents, and in the end it all becomes rather inconsequential. 

As far as the main murder case goes, again I have to say that Christie is a bit skimpy on the clues. A lot of Poirot's solution is conjecture and based on things happening behind the scenes. The second murder sort of points the suspicion in the direction of the culprit, but only vaguely so. And don't get me started on those clocks - the explanation of the clue is one of the greatest disappointments of my Christie reading career.

But it's not a total loss - as I said, the characters are likeable, the investigations are generally interesting and the murder plot is a pretty good one. It's just unfortunate that Christie didn't focus more on the murder investigation and give us more clues. I'll give this a 37 out of 100.

1964 1966

A direct translation of the title of this novel - an arguably fairly dull title. Just two Swedish editions of this novel, both of them from around the time when it was first published. Which means that this particular title hasn't had a new edition for more than fifty years!

The first of these two covers makes the most of the clocks motif, but unfortunately also includes one of the most hideous depictions of Hercule Poirot that I've ever seen. Without that, an okay-ish cover, but now it really doesn't look good at all.

The second edition is from the Zebra series. Again a whiff of a cheap dime novel makes itself felt, but I suppose the whole thing is passable. There's a short extract from the novel and some clocks. Better than the first cover, but there's much room for improvement.

2020-09-23

Agatha Christie 100 - The Pale Horse

Another non-series mystery from Christie, though this one features a couple of appearances by Ariadne Oliver.
 

A Catholic priest is killed after having performed the last rites for a dying woman and hearing her confession. The only thing the police find with the priest is a list of names. Writer Mark Easterbrook becomes aware of this list and can identify a couple as people who have died recently. Recently, he has visited the three "witches" in their abode, "The Pale Horse", and when this name turns up in conjunction with the list of names, he is intrigued enough that he starts looking into what it all means...

Well, stating that this is an Ariadne Oliver novel is a bit misleading. As usual, that worthy lady only puts in a couple of appearances, though it is a chance remark from her that makes Easterbrook put two and two together and realise exactly what's been going on.

On the whole, Christie succeeds well with the whole creepy atmosphere of the novel. It isn't always easy using the occult in an effective way in a mystery - the risk is that it all starts to feel hokey - but it works rather well here. Easterbrook is a pretty good detective to use in this story - he doesn't really know what he's doing most of the time, but he muddles through in a fairly effective way nonetheless. 

Obviously, it's a bit of a coincidence that he should know so many people on that tiny list of names that he's able to make connections. But as it turns out, the police are further along in their investigations than anyone could have known, and it is in fact they who make the final connections and arrest the culprit.

One question remains, though: What on earth was the name Corrigan doing on that list of names?

I'll award this a 53 out of 100. It's a good read and should definitely satisfy the Christie fan. There's actually more detection in this one than, say, the contemporary Poirot Cat Among the Pigeons.

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1962 1964 1975
1988 2004

Like so many other later Christie novels, this one also has five editions in Swedish. The title is of course derived from the Book of Revelations, and in the Swedish version of the Bible, the horse is not pale but yellow - hence The Yellow Horse (as a literal translation of the Swedish title would be).

The first cover above is serviceable, nothing more. The yellow horse is there, but again they do not make use of the entire page for the cover image, which to me seems a bit lazy. The Zebra edition from two years later is quite similar to what they've done elsewhere - a somewhat gritty, lurid image of a damsel in distress. Again, a plus for the extract from the novel on the cover page.

Delfinserien's cover from the mid 70s is a bit more imaginative and original. I like it quite a bit with the bottle emitting toxic fumes and the mild allusions to witchcraft. The cover from 1988 is less original, and quite why the yellow horse needs to jump out of a window is beyond me. (There is a hardcover variant of this cover with minor typographical differences.)

Finally, there was a large print edition of this title (Why this particular title? Beats me.) in 2004. I can't really make heads or tails of it. Is that image supposed to be a generic allusion to witches? It's definitely not great, at any rate.