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.