Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Tuesday Night Bloggers

Tuesday Night Bloggers

By now most of you are aware that I blog on the same topic as a number of Golden Age Detection aficionados. It started with Agatha Christie's birthday for the month of September, and it's kept going since then. 

They've set the schedule for next year, and I'll be participating in several months of blogging with them. 

They are:

January: Rex Stout

February: Dorothy L. Sayers

March: John Dickson Carr

April: Phoebe Atwood Taylor

May: Erle Stanley Gardner

June: Mary Roberts Rinehart

July: Arthur Upfield

August: Patricia Wentworth

September: S. S. Van Dine

I'll be starting next week with Rex Stout. Hope to see you then. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Favorite Five EQ Novels

Sorry I have been remiss in participating in the Tuesday Night bloggers, but after writing about respiratory illnesses, I came down with bronchitis and pleurisy.

So I am getting into the swing of things with the Ellery Queen blogging on its last week. I thought I'd do a top five list. I'll give reasons for each as I go along.

5) Cat of Many Tails -- one of the first serial killer novels, this is a work of art in terms of its rendition of a city in terror. Ellery is well-drawn and compassionate in this novel. His father is the typical over-worked police officer. The plot is simple and yet not seen by most readers. Definitely a

to-be-read of the Queen canon.

4) Calamity Town -- I'm incredibly fond of the Wrightsville novels. In part, I like them because Ellery does not succeed in the typical great detective fashion. While he may tell a small cadre of people what really happened, the news is not made public, so he doesn't gain the accolades that he does in other novels. This makes him more humble and human. In this case, the plot revolves around the typical calendar holidays and is tied together beautifully. I can't talk more about the plot without giving things away, but it's a wonderful combination of plot and style.

3) The Tragedy of Y -- I have a great love of books with malevolent matriarchs. Appointment with Death always ranks up there with my favorite Christies as well. I think this is in part because I grew up with a schizophrenic grandparent. It made me want to read about other, similar families. So this case has always fascinated me, and it pleased me to read that it was one of Fred's favorites as well. The family is a large one and members of the tribe start dying one by one. Who is the culprit? I lost out on a copy of this book, signed and in dj (because the seller backed out on me. I still hold a grudge on that one.)

4) The Tragedy of X -- I love a pure puzzle book for me and the first time I read this I was positively awed by the puzzle plot. It's held up well in reread. I still remember that feeling the first time I read this and enjoy it each time I come back to this.

And of course, my number one....

1) The Greek Coffin Mystery -- the book has 4 solutions and the table of contents spells out of the title and author. It's a well planned, well plotted mystery. It's the first glimpse of Ellery failing and Ellery wondering about his own abilities, things that will be probed more in later cases.

Could Have Been a Contender....
1) The Siamese Twin Mystery -- another early favorite of mine with a dying clue and all.
2) The Black Dog Mystery -- one of two books that stimulated my interest in Scottish terriers. I know it's not a true Dannay/Lee EQ novel, but I didn't know that at the time.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Case of the Flu

Sorry, feeling a bit under the weather myself today, so the topic will be illness in the Christie canon, specifically flu.

The story goes that young Agatha ran out of books when she was home with the flu, and her mother indicated that if she'd completed all the books in the house that she'd best write her own. Of course, it's no small matter that one of her early links to the world of writing came from the flu.

(Sidenote: I've read this story many times about mystery authors. Of course, Boucher was sickly and read voraciously. Margaret Millar was in bed at the time she decided to write, since she could do better than the authors she was reading. Fred Dannay was in bed with an ear abscess when he discovered the world of Sherlock Holmes. Not that I'm in the same stratosphere, but I have to wonder if my own ill health and reading didn't go hand in hand as well.)

So after that impetus from disease, it's not surprising that the flu crops up in a few stories. The first is "The Case of the Caretaker," where Doctor Haydock brings Miss Marple a puzzle to contemplate. She'd been ill and not back to her usual self yet. The solution of the puzzle helps her spirits and her health.

Then of course is "Yellow Iris," the precursor for Sparkling Cyanide. In both stories the victim is originally suspected of bumping herself off. "Yellow Iris" is a Hercule Poirot short story in which Iris dies of cyanide. The death is suspected to be suicide (though no reason is given.)

In Sparkling Cyanide, it is Rosemary who "commits suicide" as a result of post-flu depression, and Iris who is the younger daughter. While it sounds like a flimsy excuse, apparently the idea has been around for over 130 years, which means the diagnosis was available at the time of the book. Of course, later it's proved that Rosemary did not commit suicide (given that this is Christie, I don't think that's a particular spoiler.)

Curran has very little to say about this book, so we can't fill in many of the details here, but it would be interesting to know if the idea of post-flu depression came from a friend who suffered from it or just her knowledge of medicine.

Again Miss Marple has been under the weather in A Caribbean Mystery, which finds her on an island recuperating. It's quite possible that she has had the flu.

Have I missed other examples of illness (specifically flu) in the Christie books?

Monday, October 19, 2015

Walk like an Egyptian

Fans typically know that Agatha Christie’s second marriage was to Sir Max Mallowan, who was a renowned archaeologist in his own right. He traveled to various Middle Eastern digs, and often Christie went with him.

Though not the spot of any digs, Christie spent a fair amount of time in Egypt, which seems to be the setting for at least five (by my count) works.

  • ·         Death Comes as the End
  • ·         Death on the Nile
  • ·         Parker Pyne – “Death on the Nile”
  • ·         Poirot Investigates  - “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb”
  • ·         Akhnaton

Christie was only 20 when she visited Egypt for the first time. Her mother had become ill while Christie was at boarding school. Like many English folk of that age, they decided to stay for three months in the warm climes of Egypt. Christie visited a number of sites, but did not show a passion for archaeology.

 Some of the sites have changed dramatically. The Aswan dam has changed the landscape. The temple of Philae is now reached by a different method than in Christie’s time. The Old Cataract Hotel, where the Ustinov version was filmed, now has a suite named for Christie.

So it really should be no surprise that a young bright young thing (this author) would want to visit the land of the Pharaohs as well. I climbed the side of one of the pyramids at Giza (though it’s frowned upon, but if it was good enough for Simon then it was good enough for me!)

Of course, I chose a Nile river cruise that mimicked the one in Death on the Nile.  I traveled by train to Luxor, the home of the Karnak Temple where some of the scenes take place. The train was an overnight trip, and I slept through most of it.

We arrived in Luxor, where we boarded the ship and then went for a tour. The temple is amazing with columns that stand far taller than any man. It would be easy to imagine some damage coming to a poor little rich girl there. However, I must say that no one died on our tour.

We traveled up the Nile from there to Edfu, which I don’t recall from the books, but our stop was at 4am, so I’ll have to be forgiven for not remembering to look.

The trip was a delight, but given the current situation in Egypt, I’m very glad that I went in 1989. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Collecting Christie

So on my 55th birthday, it seems appropriate to talk about a lifelong passion which has been to collect Agatha Christie firsts. As with many things in my life, I literally stumbled into it, but that's fine with me. The fun has definitely been in the journey.

As I've shared many times before, my love of all things Christie began with The Underdog and Other Stories, a short story collection that my dad gave me from a yard sale. Given his ways, I'm betting that he likely paid a nickel or dime for it. He gave it to me and suggested that I might like it. He was right (to say the least.)

I had yet to start reading mysteries, and that led me to begin devouring as many of the books as I could. The nearest bookstore was a place called The Little Professor, a mall bookstore with a limited number of Agatha Christie paperbacks. Since I read many of them multiple times, I soon realized that it was cheaper in the long-run to buy hardcovers. My editions of Elephants Can Remember and Passenger to Frankfort came in (special order) with the words "first edition" inside. I had to ask what those were, but the woman at the store explained to me what it meant and why those were more valuable.

It wasn't long before I was collecting in earnest. My favorite dealer was Bill Dunn. For those of you who knew him, Bill ran a mail-order business out of CT. He sent these thick catalogs out every month and I waited anxiously to see what he had and what I could afford.

I don't know where I found Bill. It may have been in the ads from one of the mystery magazines like TAD or The Mystery FANcier. I don't recall, but his catalogs became the highlight of the month for me.

Around the time of my high school graduation, which occurred slightly more than 35 years ago, Bill advertised a first edition of Styles from Lane for $100. Being flush from my graduation gifts, I bought the copy. It was the only one I ever saw advertised (until Abebooks came around.)

My oddest edition is a copy of Styles with the dj and binding for Curtain that was published around the time that Christie passed away. I also have a NZ first of The Moving Finger, which a dealer would not allow me to return (though the book was misidentified.)

I finished my collection by the time I was 30, though I've had to update things from time to time. There was a collector from AK who helped me when I learned that a few of my 1950s editions were actually book club editions (the only difference was the booklist in the front of the book). That was quickly corrected.

Currently, I'm trying to round out my collection by replacing some first with those having a dust jacket. The newest volume that does not have a jacket is Ordeal By Innocence, so if you're in the mood to get me a birthday or Christie for Christmas -- you know what to look for.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Baby up the Chimney

In talking about similar themes and characters in the Christie canon, one incident stands out from the rest. In no less than three novels, The Pale Horse, By the Pricking of My Thumb, and Sleeping Murder, she has an elderly woman in a nursing home asking about the child behind the fireplace.
While it may seem as if the books were similar due to the timing, it must be remembered that Sleeping Murder predates its release by some 30 years. Therefore, Christie was writing about this particular incident over the course of some three decades.
The incongruence of the incident occurs in The Pale Horse and Sleeping Murder, where the incident does not have anything to do with the conversations at hand. The incident occurs while the protagonists in the book wait for someone else. The incident is thrown into the action in these later books as a jarring note. This marks a change from Christie’s earlier works where she makes every word count – every word driving home to the denouement.

It’s only in By the Pricking of My Thumbs that Christie investigates what that crime entails. Tommy and Tuppence clear up the mystery of the child. In reviewing John Curran’s Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making, he shows that Christie took notes on the “your poor child” behind the fireplace, but he too cannot come up with a satisfactory explanation for its appearance in three novels.

Monday, September 28, 2015

He must be Belgian!

It’s no surprise that I love dogs, and therefore it should be less surprise that I opted to write about dogs in the Christie novels for my first blog entry. Our Scottish terrier is named Tuppence for obvious reasons.

Christie was a dog enthusiast as well. Her preferred breed was the Sealyham, which is a very rare breed today, though not so much in Christie’s time. She included no less than 17 dogs in her books, which I won’t list here, but I did want to look at two in particular.

The first is Hannibal, the Manchester terrier from the Postern of Fate. Hannibal has a large role in the book (which is dedicated to Christie’s dog Peter.) His behavior is explained through “thoughts” that the dog is imbued with by the author. Hannibal is the character who first discovers Alexander’s tombstone and later Hannibal is the only one who saw the attack on Tuppence. He comes to the rescue at the end of the book by identifying the shooter.

In that book, Christie does mention James, a Sealyham of obstinate nature – as if terriers came in any other way.

In Dumb Witness, the dog, Bob, is given an even larger role. Bob is a wire-haired fox terrier in the book, though the Suchet version of the novel has a dog of a different appearance. In that version, Poirot states, "This dog is very clever. He must be Belgian!" John Curran tells us that it was based on a short story entitled “The Incident of the Dog’s Ball.”

Bob, in this story, plays a pivotal role in the execution of the murder and the solution to it. Bob is blamed for leaving a ball at the top of the stairs which causes Mrs. Arundell to trip. However, she realizes it for an attempted murder and contacts Poirot, who arrives too late to help. Mrs. Arundell realized that Bob was outside all night and could not have been the culprit who left the ball at the top of the stairs as a red herring.

Sealyhams are again mentioned in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead; fox terriers appear again in the short stories “Death By Drowning” and “Next to a Dog.” 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

But Mom, everyone's doing it....

Okay, so there seem to be a lot of lists around picking the best of the Christie novels on the occassion of her 125th birthday.

I had to join in. I've been reading Dame Agatha since I was a teenager, and my father brought home a copy of The Underdog and Other Stories, saying "I think you might like this." Truer words were never spoken.

I've read all of them and at various times, I've reread them as well. I've collected them for nearly 40 years, and currently have American 1st editions of all of the novels and short story collections. It took me a long time to do it, but the collection is looking great. I'm going back at this point and adding copies with dust jackets when I can afford it, but they're all there.

So without further ado, my top 10 list.

1) Death on the Nile -- I enjoyed this book so much that I actually took the same cruise as Poirot and company. I'm glad I did that before 30, since I don't know that I'd go back in the current climate, but it was an adventure. The book is fascinating, and perhaps her best Poirot novel.

2-5) The Big Four -- no not that book, but the four that made her reputation. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express and Curtain. For their own reasons, they were daring and showed Christie's versatility as an author.

6) A Murder Is Announced -- the best of the Miss Marples by far. A stunning plot, and an intimate look at post WWII life in a village. For all of those who say Christie is only plot, I always point them to this book. Plus the murder of a LGBT character was probably the most heartbreaking scene I've ever read in a Christie.

7) The Hollow -- another Poirot that stays with me. The portrait of Henrietta as artist and human is probably quite like what Christie felt about herself -- cannibalizing everything.

8) The ABC Murders -- another first, one of the first serial murder books and one that is still mentioned today. I've read other titles that refer to the ABC Murder type.

9) Why Didn't They Ask Evans? -- they didn't mean Curtis. I love what Christie does with plot here. The care with which she must have planned this book to achieve what she did here makes me stand back and gawk. Plus I've always adored her Bright Young Things, and Lady Frankie and Bobby are among the best.

10) The Underdog and Other Stories -- tucked in my collection of first editions is the book that my dad gave me 40 years ago. I may be a bit sentimental about this title, but it opened the world of mystery to me and that is worth a spot on my list.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Margaret Millar

Margaret Millar has been getting a great deal of press, some good, some bad. She's included in Sarah Weinman's new Library of America volumes, and she's getting some well-deserved publicity from that.

I'm reviewing her book in that anthology, Beast in View, for this blog. Beast in View won an Edgar for best novel in 1956. The central plot device shocked audiences with a little known psychological
phenomenon, but over the years numerous other authors have recycled this device. Repetition has dulled its edge, meaning few have equaled Millar’s original work. The plot is alarmingly simple. Evelyn Merrick has started a telephone campaign of terror against anyone who crosses her. Her specific wrath has been turned to the Clarvoe family which includes her childhood friend Helen who has become a hermit and Douglas, Evelyn’s ex-husband, who admitted his homosexuality to his former wife only after their marriage. The phone harassment leads to suicide and murder and a startling discovery in the last few pages.

The other attention she is receiving is less attractive. In the recent volume of correspondence between Ken Millar (Ross Macdonald) and Eudora Welty, it's Mrs. Millar who comes off looking like the beast. In the letters, it's very apparent that Welty and Millar are having an emotional affair. While their physical locations do not allow anything more, the editors of the volume downplay the significance of an emotional affair. Instead they want to portray Margaret as vindictive when she tells Welty that she reads the letters. However, it makes perfect sense in the light of emotional infidelity. 

By setting the parameters of cheating so narrowly, the editors seek to make Margaret the villain, when in fact she is merely a woman who is fighting for her marriage. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

A Little Mischief

This week I'm looking at Mischief, which will appear in the Library of America's new volumes of American Women Authors of the 1940s and 1950s.

Armstrong’s  bestseller Mischief became the basis for the movie Don't Bother to Knock, which starred a young Marilyn Monroe as a mentally unbalanced baby-sitter. As in Bus Stop, Monroe gives some of her best work, proof that she was more than just a dumb blonde. Mischief would do for babysitters what Psycho would later do for showers. Armstrong’s book started out as a play entitled Little Nell, a wry twist on the idea of the poor young Dickensian heroine. She later changed the story to the now familiar plot of the babysitter who seems reliable, but quickly displays her disturbed nature. The elevator man’s niece is a last minute replacement for the husband’s sister who had a previous engagement. Nell, the babysitter, seems almost mentally challenged at first, but her total lack of morals and concern for the future are slowly revealed to the reader. The book is tightly and expertly written and touches upon the fears of every parent.
Two themes begin to resonate through the works of Armstrong at this point. The first is the idea of the strong woman. Women who might appear slight in appearance, but are made of steel inside have replaced the dependent girls of her first few efforts. In Mischief, Ruth Jones, the child’s mother, is one such heroine. For three quarters of the book, she is merely the companion to her husband who has just wowed an audience with his speech. She is only given a few polite words to murmur in appreciation of her spouse. However, when she feels concern about her daughter being in danger, she immediately rushes to action. She travels through New York City alone and confronts Nell without thought to her own safety. 

These women are typically married, happy, and most strong in defending a family member.

The other idea that starts to come through in her work is the idea of a collective unconscious. Armstrong would use the notion in many of her later novels. The subtle idea that a number of characters could share an emotion without discussing it appears in a number of her works. In Mischief, she manages to imbue several of her characters with the realization that they share the guilt for this situation. The child’s brush with danger from the deranged babysitter could have been prevented with intervention from any number of people. All the characters “could” have done something to stop the crescendo of fear and abuse. While none of the characters express this concern verbally, it passes through the thoughts of several of the major characters. The couple staying downstairs might have investigated the crying earlier or the elevator operator might have suggested another babysitter. Thematically tied to the idea of helping each other, Jed, Nell’s date for the evening, even recalls a fight he had with another woman about her desire to give money to the bums on the streets. The notion of contributing to help others runs deep in the novel. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

Some Domestic Suspense for you

To celebrate the Library of America's decision to publish several of the American women mystery authors who were profiled in Atomic Renaissance, I thought I'd give you my thoughts on some of the books in the collections. All of these books are fascinating and everyone should be running to get a copy of them!

After Highsmith's The Price of Salt, The Blunderer, was again in the suspense field and published under her own name. In The Blunderer, she twists the formula she used so well in Strangers on a Train.
“[T]he germinal idea of another book, The Blunderer, was not so promising, was more stubborn about developing, but showed a hardihood by sticking in my head for more than a year, and nagging at me until I found a way to write it. This was: ‘Two crimes are strikingly similar, though the people who commit them do not know each other.’”1

As with Strangers on a Train, the two main characters are men, bound together by murder. In this case, one man has intentionally killed his wife, the other merely fantasized about it before his wife commits suicide. While Walter Stackhouse has not committed a crime, he has daydreamed about his wife’s murder. Society punishes him for that crime by making him the outcast that his wife wanted him to be. Stackhouse is trapped in an existential nightmare, one where he is punished for the wickedness of his thoughts rather than for any deed he committed. The situation is evocative of Kafka, where no one can halt events once they have begun. The logical end is like a brick wall looming ahead. The policeman, Corby, plays the two men off each other until the situation explodes into further violence.
Again the women in the novel are not sympathetic. Clara Stackhouse, a successful businesswoman, clings to her husband with threats of suicide and promises that she will change. She is petty and neurotic, accusing her husband of starting an affair with an acquaintance before he even notices the young woman in question.

In nearly all of Highsmith’s works, the plot has a point of no-return where the character could choose another direction. Once that choice is made, the inevitable path of self-destruction begins. Some critics have decried her works, saying that the suspension of disbelief is stretched too far by the extreme reactions of the characters. To Highsmith’s credit, she makes the situation so plausible and real that the reader forgets that the protagonist might have avoided the entire situation. In Strangers on a Train, Guy could have easily not played along with Bruno’s conversation. He could have moved or read a book. In The Blunderer, Walter follows the bus carrying his wife to the first rest stop. His reasoning for his actions is thin, but Highsmith has so masterfully drawn the characters and situation that the reader understands the actions, even if the decisions are not what the reader would do.
(1.Patricia Highsmith. Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, page 4.)