Mystery

A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie

Sing a song of sixpence,

A pocket full of rye.

Four and twenty blackbirds,

Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened,

The birds began to sing;

Wasn’t that a dainty dish,

To set before the king?

The king was in his counting house,

Counting out his money;

The queen was in the parlour,

Eating bread and honey.

The maid was in the garden,

Hanging out the clothes;

When down came a blackbird

And pecked off her nose.

This, in short, is the plot of A Pocketful of Rye.

Agatha Christie had a real affinity for nursery rhymes. Many of her novels and short stories are named after nursery rhymes. A Pocketful of Rye gets its name from the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence.

A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie was first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in 1953 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company the following year.

The setting of the story is classic Christie. A large household filled with unpleasant people were everyone has a motive and any of them might have been the killer.

The bodies pile up amazingly quickly which is unusual for a Marple mystery.

Among the characters, I found the character of the chief investigator Inspector Neele to be kind of different. He is quite young and not portrayed in the usual way the police are portrayed in detective books. He kind of reminds me of Inspector Craddock, another young detective from the Marple stories. I felt sorry for Jennifer Fortescue. Getting what you want may not always be a good thing.

In this novel, Miss Marple is much sterner and much more eager to catch the killer. She had known one of the victims and it is her death that makes Miss Marple angrier than I’ve ever seen her before. Inspector Neele calls her ‘avenging fury’ (though he admits she does not look like the popular idea of it).

Miss Marple deduces the identity of the killer once again through her infinite knowledge of the ‘Human Nature’. I was kind of surprised by the identity of the killer. Because it is not the usual type Christie goes with (not that there hasn’t been one or two exceptions to this rule in some of Agatha Christie’s books).

The narrative is crisp and enjoyable. The book almost reads itself.

A Pocket Full of Rye is a very entertaining Miss Marple novel. Mystery buffs will definitely enjoy this engaging little problem. Recommended.

The Lodger by Marie Adelaide Belloc

*The following review may contain spoilers.*

The Lodger was published in 1913. It is arguably the most well known work of its author Marie Adelaide Belloc (1868 – 1947). The Lodger famously became the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s silent classic The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), although the movie differs somewhat from the book.

The new lodger at the Buntings’ home is a dream come true. So generous with money and such a gentleman! He is just what Robert and Ellen Bunting needed. So what if he is a little ‘eccentric’? Surely, he means no harm. Or does he?

The Lodger strangely oppressed me. It’s not so much the crimes but just the unbearable suspense of it all. Is the lodger the serial killer everyone is looking for?  Will some harm come to the Bunting family?

I don’t understand Ellen’s attitude. Why does she become so agitated? Why does she want to know for sure and yet tries to ignore the possibility of her lodger being a serial killer & tries to cover for him? If it was fear, I would have understood. If it was pure sympathy for the lodger, that could be explained too. But she shows both repulsion and compassion. All her life she had maintained her distance from ‘crudities’ such as murder. She wouldn’t even let her husband talk about them. But her tenderness for the lodger contradicts all that. She forgets her scorn for crimes & criminals and becomes unhealthily obsessed with the ghastly murders in spite of herself.

The characters of Robert and Ellen Bunting are interesting. The way they both react to their forebodings about the lodger was interesting to read. Their dilemma also stems from the fact that the lodger had brought them the financial security that they needed so badly. But surely no amount of money can ever make up for the fact that they are harbouring a possible serial killer?

The characters of Robert’s pretty but vacuous daughter Daisy and his young friend Joe Chandler seemed promising but nothing comes of them. I thought the young policeman Chandler would turn out to be useful somehow but he simply spends his time wooing Daisy, who in her turn contributes very little to the story.

The book builds up the suspense and keeps building it up until I felt as jumpy as Ellen Bunting! The part that really creeped me out was when Robert Bunting bumps into his lodger in the streets after midnight.

The book got on my nerves after a while. It stretches on and on and Ellen keeps getting worse and worse. How much more of that could I take? I longed for the conclusion.

After so much nerve-wracking suspense nothing really comes of it. The ending felt very abrupt. I kept anticipating some terrible ending to Ellen’s unfounded sympathy for her lodger but that never comes.

Overall, reading The Lodger was a weirdly unsatisfying experience. The suspense quotient of the story was so high at times that I couldn’t breathe but in the end it was all rather hastily wrapped up. The book made me feel strangely depressed and discontented. I don’t think I will be re-reading this one.

(This review is offered as a part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme. Check out what other reviews are up at pattinase.)

The After House by Mary Roberts Rinehart

The After House written by American mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart was published in 1914.

Ralph Leslie, a young doctor, is recovering from a bout of Typhoid. Partly to earn some money and partly to stay close to a girl he has espied through his hospital window, he gets a job on board a yacht named Ella. What promised to be a tranquil voyage soon turns into a nightmare as three of Ella’s passengers are found hacked in to pieces. With land nowhere in sight, the crew of Ella do all they can to reach the nearest port before the unknown assailant strikes again.

I read Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase (1908) last year and was not impressed. I still decided to give Rinehart another chance. I must say that I enjoyed The After House more than The Circular Staircase.

The atmosphere created by Rinehart is perfectly chilling! After the multiple homicides occur, I could totally feel the fear felt by the crew and the passengers.

I also loved the supernatural touch Rinehart added to the story. Floating in the lonesome sea on an isolated boat with dead bodies on board, people are bound to be more than a bit inclined to believe in the paranormal. It was quite effectively scary.

I read a lot of Classic literature, Mystery and Detective novels especially Golden Age Mysteries. By now I should get used to the attitudes from a different era. But for some reason I can’t. Racism and sexism bother me to no end. It gnaws at my brain until I cannot see straight. A lot of good and some very good mysteries are ruined by this problem of mine. The same problem plagues The After House.

In the story the protagonist treats the women like some sort of dumb dolls who should be protected from the ‘horrors’ of the crime at any cost. Most of the crucial evidence is cleared away so as not to offend their ‘delicate’ senses. They are ordered about and herded together like animals. They are portrayed as pigheaded individuals who see only one thing at a time and act accordingly. All of them want to protect one person it seems and they try to accomplish that by any means (destroying evidence, perjuring themselves, using their ‘feminine wiles’). I could understand if one of them was like that but nearly half a dozen women all acting alike is a bit too much to take.

And don’t even get me started on the racism! George Williams, the coloured butler, is used as a punching bag (both metaphorically and literally). He is portrayed as a cowardly snivelling fool. The ‘N’ word and ‘d…y’ are commonly used to describe him. This made me really uncomfortable and at times angry.

The romance, as usual, annoyed me. Well, at least the heroine wasn’t some pretty as a doll blonde who just says sweet things and faints. The conclusion of this romance is also unnecessary and irritating.

The court room scenes were pointless. They basically repeat everything we already know. I have seen Rinehart do this before in The Circular Staircase where the rather thin plot is stretched to the breaking point. She liked using fillers to draw out her stories it seems.

I enjoyed The After House more than The Circular Staircase but the two books share some common problems. Rinehart creates some really amazing spine chilling situations and parts of the books are great fun to read. But she also tries to extend her stories through tedious repetitions and needless twists, a practice that ultimately leaves the reader exasperated. I only wish her books stayed taut and thrilling throughout without all the superfluous parts. Then I definitely would have wanted to read more books by her.

(This review is offered as a part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme. Check out what other reviews are up at pattinase.)

In the Fog by Richard Harding Davis

In the Fog (1901) is a mystery novella by Richard Harding Davis. Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916) was an American journalist and popular fiction writer at the turn of the century.

At the exclusive Grill Club, five strangers have gathered. In order to prevent the mystery loving Sir Andrew from making a speech in the parliament, the other four hatch an ingenious plan. They will give Sir Andrew a real life mystery to deal with, a mystery that has even the Scotland Yard baffled. Each member will provide a piece of the puzzle, the final piece of which will ultimately lead to the solution.

In the Fog, quite obviously, reminded me of the Arabian Nights. The aim of the stories is to keep Sir Andrew occupied much like it was Scheherazade’s intention to keep King Shahryār occupied. Also, a lot of the tales from the Arabian Nights are framed like this where one person tells one part of the story with another one filling in with another part.

I am kind of surprised with how much I have enjoyed this. I usually do not enjoy early detective fiction. Most of them feel disjointed to me but In the Fog has a definite structure to it. The story managed to keep me engrossed.

The description of a house where most of the occupants lay dead as an impenetrable fog engulfs the entire city was creepy. If you are lost in the fog and accidentally find yourself in such a house keeping your nerve steady must be one of the toughest things ever!

The end also did not disappoint me. The final twist worked for me.

The novella is really short and as I was totally gripped by the narrative, it took me under an hour to finish it.

On the whole, I can say that I enjoyed reading In the fog much more than I thought I would. Recommended for all mystery buffs.

(This review is offered as a part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme. Check out what other reviews are up at pattinase.)

4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie

4.50 from Paddington is a detective novel written by Agatha Christie. It was first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in 1957 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in the same year under the title of What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! A paperback edition by Pocket Books in 1963 changed the title to Murder, She Said to tie in with the feature film release of the same name.

Elspeth McGillicuddy, on her way to visit her old friend Miss Marple, has been having a rather uneventful journey. But that changes when she looks out the window of her train carriage and sees a woman being strangled in a passing train. The problem is no one believes her. Only Miss Marple does. But if there has been a murder where is the body? It’s up to Miss Marple to find that out.

The unusual way in which Mrs. McGillicuddy witnesses the crime has long been one of my favorites in detective fiction. I’m yet to discover a better way in which the commencement a crime is seen through the eyes of the witness.

One of the main characters of this mystery (and Miss Marple’s right hand woman) is Lucy Eyelesbarrow. She is a professional housekeeper and a very unusual woman. She is efficient and organized. The way she handles the investigation and all the household duties at the same time dealing with her own inner emotional confusion, is remarkable. She is definitely not a damsel in distress.

In fact, all of the female characters in this story are unusually strong. For example, another female character, Emma Crackenthorpe, is not a push over and holds her own pretty well against a pack of scowling brothers and a cantankerous father.

Detective-Inspector Dermot Craddock reappears in this book after A Murder Is Announced. He is the godson of Sir Henry Clithering, who is an old friend of Miss Marple. In fact, the case from A Murder Is Announced is discussed at least on two separate occasions in this book.

Also, reappearing is the Vicar and his family from The Murder at the Vicarage and The Body in the Library. I love how all of these familiar character grow old as time goes by in Miss Marple’s universe, makes the reader feel like as if s/he has known them all their lives.

Among the other characters Luther Crackenthorpe, the Crackenthorpe family patriarch is a nasty old man who relishes the thought of out living all of his children. He is one strange man. All of Luther’s sons, Cedric, Harold and Alfred, are greedy, unpleasant and definitely unlikable. Christie is much more sympathetic in her portrayal of Luther’s only surviving daughter, Emma Crackenthorpe.

Luther’s son-in-law, his deceased daughter Edith’s husband, Brian Eastley, is like so many of other Christie creations. Christie definitely had a theory about war time heroes not being fit for day to day life. Peace time doesn’t suit them. They find real life too tame and become restless. This theme reoccurs in many of her stories. For example, Pat Fortescue’s first husband in A Pocketful of Rye.

The relationship between Brian Eastley and his son Alexander was touching and the interaction between Alexander and Lucy was fun to read. The characters of Alexander Eastley and his friend James Stoddard-West definitely brighten up the narrative.

Miss Marple and her unlimited stock of ‛village parallels’ are as fresh as ever. One might say that Miss Marple does not do all the sleuthing herself and it’s not fair but the story is so nicely paced that I hardly felt her absence at all. She is, as she herself says in the book, old and physically weak. It is impossible for her to physically do what Lucy Eyelesbarrow does.

I always talk about Agatha Christie’s little insights about psychology of murderers. Here is an interesting one,

“Yes, of course ______ was a little peculiar, as they say, but I never see myself that that’s any real excuse. I mean you can be a little peculiar in so many different ways. Sometimes you just go about giving all your possessions away and writing cheques on bank accounts that don’t exist, just so as to benefit people. It shows, you see, that behind being peculiar you have quite a nice disposition. But of course if you’re peculiar and behind it you have a bad disposition…”

I was surprised by the identity of the killer. I really didn’t think (after having read way too many Christie mysteries) that the person was the murdering type at all.

One little thing I’ve always wanted to know is ‘Who does Lucy Eyelesbarrow end up with?’ Miss Marple says she knows but we the poor readers are left very much in the dark. I’m still wondering.

The central mystery of 4.50 from Paddington is rather a common one. But I enjoyed it nonetheless. Because I don’t expect uncommon stories from Christie. What I expect is a feeling of satisfaction, the comfort of having read a good cozy mystery. I always come back to Christie for comfort and am never disappointed.