Agatha Christie, Golden Age, Historical Mysteries

Death Comes As The End by Agatha Christie

DeathComesI have always been intrigued by Ancient Egypt ever since I saw a sarcophagus and set of canopic jars as a child. Lately I have been rekindling that interest while playing Assassin’s Creed Origins and it occurred to me that it would be nice to read a detective novel set in that historical period.

It just so happened that I have been undertaking a project to read through all of Agatha Christie’s standalone mystery novels so I had little difficulty in settling on a title. Death Comes as the End was written in response to a suggestion from a family friend, the archaeologist Stephen Glanville.

The novel stands out for a couple of reasons but its biggest claim to fame is that it is Christie’s only historical mystery. While some reviews assert that it is a ‘typical Christie country house mystery’ that has been given a little Egyptian set dressing, I think such views ignore much of the thematic content of the novel and, in particular, its discussion of Egyptian views of death.

The book centers around an Egyptian family. The father, Imhotep, is away on business and has left his adult sons to manage his estate. When he returns he brings with him a much younger woman, Nofret, who he installs as his concubine. Soon the family realize that the operations of the household are changing to her whims and they worry that they are being disregarded.

An attempt to bully her into submission backfires horribly when she sends a message to Imhotep who is travelling again to tell him about his children’s behavior towards her. His response is to threaten to disinherit his sons and cast them out. Before he returns to make good on that threat, Nofret is found dead at the foot of a cliff. This does not end the drama however and soon the bodies are mounting up.

The body count here is certainly impressive and I think the comparisons some readers make to And Then There Were None are understandable. As with that book, the body count provides a sense of growing tension and impending doom that proves really effective and while there may have been relatively few suspects left standing at the end, I still failed to figure out the killer’s identity.

I also think that it is worth stressing what a good job Christie does of finding a convincing way to tell a mystery story set in the ancient world that still retains all of the hallmarks of her writing. Death Comes as the End is a psychological crime novel, even if it takes place a few millennia before that word was used. Our characters have no forensic science or independent witnesses to rely on. They have to utilize their own intuition and observation to understand the personalities within the house and to identify who would have killed and why.

One of the most impressive things about the novel is the balance she is able to find between the historical and cultural details and the details of the plot. This is a tricky thing for a writer to gauge and I have certainly read many novels by writers who specialize in historical mysteries that fail to keep those elements in balance.

I mentioned earlier that I think this book does a good job of reflecting aspects of Ancient Egyptian society and spiritualism. While some of the plot points could clearly take place in any period of history, the way those events are interpreted could not. This principally can be seen in one of the character’s musings on the relationship between life and death but I think some seemingly supernatural events are also taken more seriously by the cast of characters than they ever would be if the action took place in a contemporary setting.

While I found the book to be an impressive and enjoyable read, I do think there are a few issues. The biggest of these is that I am not sure the reader could reach the killer’s identity through logical deduction. Though there is certainly plenty of information that suggests who is responsible, this is not the sort of case where the attentive reader could only reconcile the clues in one way. Instead the killer really just reveals themselves at the end. Personally I enjoyed the ride and being uncertain of quite how it would all be resolved but your mileage may vary.

The other thing that I think didn’t quite work was the attempt at a romantic subplot. Wikipedia would have me believe that the ending was forced on Christie and later a subject of regret, though I couldn’t easily find out what her preferred ending would have been, and I do wonder if this was one of those elements that she was forced to include. While this is not the only Christie novel that features an attempt to bring a restoration of order with a romantic subplot, I am not sure that it fits with the otherwise bleak tone of the later chapters.

In spite of these less satisfying elements of the novel, overall I found Death Comes as the End to be a very enjoyable and entertaining read. I think it conjures up a strong sense of place and culture and though I think it may disappoint a little as a detective story, I felt gripped by the way it unfolded.

Finally, if anyone has an Egyptian mystery novel they’d like to recommend to me I’d love to hear your suggestions…

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: A historical crime (When)

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Golden Age, Henry Wade

Diplomat’s Folly by Henry Wade

DiplomatsDiplomat’s Folly is set just a couple of years after the conclusion of World War II and concerns a rising diplomat, Alwyn Hundrich, who is hoping to be appointed as Ambassador to France. Unfortunately for him, it turns out that he has some skeletons in his closet that someone who knew him before the war is hoping to exploit.

When he is first contacted and offered the chance to buy some old love letters he seeks the guidance of a friend, Sir Vane Tabbard, who he tells about his indiscretion. He follows Vane’s advice that if he won’t confess all then he will need to pay up. Soon a second demand follows and Alwyn decides to enlist Vane’s son, a former army commando, to carry out the transaction for him but he meets with only partial success. And then a third request follows…

The novel is subtitled ‘A Police Novel’, though that is somewhat unsatisfactory as a description given that less than half of the novel features a Police investigation. It seems to me that Wade is not as interested in the specifics of the crime as in reflecting on how the Second World War had changed the British character.

There is a temptation to paint Wade as a purely reactionary writer pushing a view of the country sliding towards socialism and chaos because of a reckless younger generation. I don’t want to deny that those elements are in his works but I think that oversimplifies the themes and the characterizations he creates in his work.

Let’s start with the character of Alwyn, the target of the blackmail. Though we understand him to be a rising figure, he is only a few years younger than Sir Vane and his indiscretions belong to the pre-war era. He is a member of the establishment and you might expect Wade’s sympathies to be with him and yet he is presented as anything but an admirable figure having not only committed some historical indiscretions but also carrying on a clandestine affair with his best friend’s young wife.

Sir Vane is certainly a more likeable figure and tries to act according to a code of honor and yet Wade makes it clear that he is out of touch and ill-equipped to deal with post-war life. He can see that his son has returned from the war brutalized and unable to adjust back to civilian life yet he seems more focused on restoring his family home to its old glory. He certainly doesn’t seem to be able to see the imperfections of those around him. Wade may not be quite as biting in his criticism, perhaps because he belonged to that same generation, but it is certainly present.

The story he concocts is a strong one, even if it is short on opportunities for ratiocination. The first half of the novel follows the string of blackmail demands, building to an evening that will see someone found dead. The second half of the novel follows the investigation into what happened although do not expect to be taxed about who committed the crime or their motive. Nick Fuller in his review compares this second half of the novel to Crofts’ style and while I think its thematic approach gives it a very different tone, I will admit that the mechanics of the investigation can be a little timetabley.

I should probably also note that the novel commits that frustrating sin of having a murderer make their confession long before anything is actually proven against them. While this usually is a huge frustration for me, I think it just reflects that Wade is really less interested in his crime than in addressing the chief themes of his work.

If those themes sound familiar, you may be thinking that this book touches on some similar points to a Wade novel I wrote about a few months ago – Too Soon to Die. Certainly I was struck by some of the similarities though I think the themes are handled in a more nuanced and interesting way here.

Diplomat’s Folly is a novel that, while not wholly successful if judged purely as a detective story, proves interesting both in terms of its commentary on a period of transition in British society as well as in its strong character work.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: It’s by an author you’ve read & loved before (Why)

Golden Age, John Street

Death at Breakfast by John Rhode

BreakfastVictor Harleston, a clerk with an accounting firm, wakes up in anticipation of a very good day. He is expecting a financial windfall that he has no intention of sharing with his half-sister Jane who he exploits for housekeeping duties in exchange for putting a roof over her head. Within a few hours he will be dead.

The crime scene proves a curious one, riddled with contradictions. While it is clear that Victor was poisoned, the evidence collected seems to suggest that the poison was ingested while the autopsy indicates that it was absorbed.

Soon Superintendent Hanslet and Jimmy Waghorn are on the case but while they quickly seem to settle on a suspect, they cannot understand how the crime could have been achieved. Hanslet decides to turn to Dr. Priestley for his advice but before long some further complications emerge in the case…

 

I have only read a couple of Rhode/Street/Burton novels so far (the only one I have reviewed here is The Chinese Puzzle) and this is the first of his Dr. Priestley series. Of the novels that I have tried, this is easily my favorite so far. Knowing that Rhode-expert Puzzle Doctor says that he doesn’t consider this top rate Rhode makes me all the more intrigued to dig deeper into his work.

A large part of my enjoyment was based on the character of Dr. Priestley who is used rather sparingly, brought in to hear the various theories that Hanslet and Waghorn have developed and to set them on the right track with a judicious application of logical thinking. It put me a little in mind of the Professor in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and I like to imagine that after each meeting Dr. Priestley is silently tutting to himself and wondering what they teach them in those schools…

Most of the actual investigating work is carried out by Jimmy Waghorn while Hanslet seems to be mostly content with trying to make the facts he already has work to convict his chosen suspect. Jimmy certainly shows some spark in identifying the method the murderer actually used to carry out their crime and takes the initiative to follow up on some leads. While he lacks Priestley’s ability to analyse the evidence, he does at least show some imagination and his diligent approach to searching the crime scenes and interviewing suspects does bear some fruit.

That murder method is quite cleverly devised and while the methodical approach to the investigation means that the reader will likely reason out the solution much faster than the detectives, I enjoyed reading how Jimmy was carefully piecing the elements together. There are some similarly strong investigation sequences in the middle third of the book, though I do agree with Puzzle Doctor that there is some dragging as the investigators put forward multiple explanations of how a crime may have been managed. I think though that the problem is that the investigators have obviously failed to consider every reading of the evidence at that point so if you are already aware of an alternate reading of that evidence, the reader may feel impatient for the detectives to catch up with them.

Happily when they do I think that the case proves a satisfying one, repaying the reader’s investment. I think Rhode explains his characters’ motivations well and provides us with a credible sequence of events that may lead someone to murder. The mystery is well-clued and plays fair with the reader and though I suspect most will see key developments coming, Rhode spaces those moments out well throughout his story to maintain interest.

As some of you may be aware I will be collaborating with JJ at The Invisible Event next month to produce a spoilery review of another recently reissued book by Rhode, Invisible Weapons. All of the aspects of the plot will be up for discussion so if you fancy joining in, do be sure to pick up a copy. My hopes for a good read and discussion are certainly boosted by the experience of reading this one.

 

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Time/date/etc in the Title (When)

George Bellairs, Golden Age

The Case of the Headless Jesuit by George Bellairs

Jesuit2As the time strikes midnight and the New Year is rung in Granville Salter stumbles into the church of St. Mark’s, apparently drunk. When he collapses it is discovered that the man has been murdered having been stabbed in the chest with what seems to have been a German prisoner’s knife.

When Inspector Littlejohn arrives he learns that Salter was not the only local to have mysteriously died and also absorbs a little of the local lore. There are two legends that will play a role in this case. The first is that of a ghost that is said to haunt the area – the titular Jesuit. The second relates to a supposed treasure that is hidden somewhere around the Salter family’s ancestral home.

I have now read several Bellairs novels and I keep waiting to find the knockout read I feel sure the author was capable of. The omens with this one seemed particularly promising from its striking title, suggestions of the supernatural and the attention-grabbing opening chapter. Would this be the novel that would make me fall in love with Bellairs?

There is certainly a lot to like here and I will say that I found the book to be a pretty enjoyable read. Let’s start with its most distinctive elements – the two local legends that are incorporated into this story. From my reading so far, this hardly seems typical of Bellairs’ usual style and I certainly do not think he extracts the gothic atmosphere from these elements that other writers may have achieved but I did respect that he manages to make these elements colorful, distinctive and genuinely important to the plot without overwhelming the rest of his narrative.

While the subject matter may seem unusual for Bellairs, I think this is yet another example of his playing with aspects of rural life. His interest is less in the content of the legend but the way it hangs over and becomes part of a small community’s identity. That it adds a little color and spice to the narrative is a bonus rather than its cause for existence and I can certainly respect that approach.

I also felt that the string of murders we see here are fairly interesting in that they clearly must be connected and yet it is hard to see how they could be given the very different lives of each of the victims. The solution to just what happened is interesting and quite powerful, yet I do think that the number of deaths in such a short book means that a few of the killings get far less focus than the others. I think the resolution justifies the more superficial treatment of a couple of deaths but I could certainly understand if some readers felt frustrated that they do not receive a little more attention in the narrative.

And then there’s the characterization which I think is among the best of the Bellairs novels I have read so far. He always seems to have a good handle on countryside types but what I think he shows in this novel is his ability to condense a characterization down into a pithy description. A good example would be the character of Mrs. Alverston who, we are told:

…had a thin, puffy face and the large appealing eyes of the persecuted. If life does not unduly persecute them, they persecute themselves.

Another character who is given a memorable, scandalous introduction is PC Pennyquick.

He had one secret sin. He loved, when alone, to drink with his mouth full. He liked to mix hot, sugared tea with his food.

There are a surprisingly large number of characters in what is quite a short book, yet I think even the most incidental characters feel memorable and distinctive which is quite an achievement.

Given all of these aspects of the book I appreciated and enjoyed, you may be wondering just why I am not being more enthusiastic about this story. The answer is that I think the investigation just feels flat and passive.

While I would never list Littlejohn amongst my favorite detectives from the Golden Age, I do appreciate that he typically adopts a fairly rigorous, methodical approach to investigating crimes. He does the same here, working as usual with the local police and yet here he never really seems to take charge of the investigation. The result is that the case feels unfocused and only really comes together in the final chapters once a third party comes to explain their actions.

We do learn in the aftermath of that moment that Littlejohn had successfully identified them and yet it is hard to extract much satisfaction from that seeing as how he never shares that information with the reader. Though I think the nature of that reveal plays into the themes of the novel and leads to a pretty striking coda scene, I found the journey to that point unsatisfying, not quite working as a detective story while not being thrilling enough to work as a thriller.

Unfortunately the result is a disappointing novel that has some great ideas and themes but never manages to balance them. It’s certainly very readable and entertaining in places but it is hard to overlook a weak investigative narrative.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: At least two deaths with different means (How)

This book was published in the United States as Death Brings In the New Year.

British Library Crime Classics, Golden Age, J. Jefferson Farjeon

Seven Dead by J. Jefferson Farjeon

SevenDeadBack in the run up to Christmas I read and reviewed J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White – a novel that was reissued just at the perfect time to catch a growing interest in Golden Age crime fiction to become a surprise bestseller. While I liked some aspects of the setup though, I found I didn’t care for the book as a whole and was ultimately quite disappointed.

 

Happily I found Seven Dead to be a far more satisfying read as it not only had a strange and somewhat unsettling opening but managed to deliver a compelling resolution to those ideas.

The opening chapters of the book detail how a man breaks into a seemingly empty house intent on looting the place. He quickly amasses a good haul and is about to leave when he notices a door with the key in the lock. When he unlocks and opens it he flees in terror from the house, getting arrested in his desperation to get out of there.

This is a wonderful opening for the book and it builds up lots of anticipation about just what the burglar may have discovered inside. When we do get to learn about the crime scene it is quite wonderfully macabre. Seven bodies, six of them men and one a woman dressed in men’s clothing, in a sort of circle with lots of strange details scattered around the room. There is a note implying that they are members of a suicide club yet our detectives note that the room had been locked from the outside meaning that an eighth person must have been present.

The investigation that follows is conducted in two countries by two different people. One of them is a policeman, Inspector Kendall, the other is Thomas Hazeldean, a freelance journalist who is there when the crime scene is discovered. While the former is a competent and diligent detective who gets on with his job, the latter is the more interesting and characterful figure and thankfully it is he that is the focus for the lion’s share of the story.

Hazeldean is a very likeable figure, approaching his investigation with a disarming flippancy and charm that enable him to befriend and break down some stony resistance from the characters he encounters (and to get himself access to the investigation in the first place) yet clearly he also possesses observational and deductive skills. He’s your sort of perfect 1930s adventure thriller hero and I particularly enjoyed his lightly flirtatious interactions with a young woman he meets in Boulogne.

Farjeon’s story unfolds at a brisk pace, packing plenty of revelations and throwing several strange and unsettling supporting characters into the mix once the action shifts to the continent. This makes for quite an exciting and atmospheric tale and I genuinely had little idea where things were headed until shortly before the end of the novel.

That is not to say though that the killer is difficult to identify. I would argue that this is the most straightforward aspect of the plot – instead the reader’s task really is to explain how and why these strange events have occurred. I didn’t mind this at all and enjoyed the way the case comes into focus but the ending did leave me with some mixed feelings.

After some skillful and wonderfully paced investigating, I felt the resolution of the case was really quite abrupt. Certainly I liked some of the ideas involved in that ending but rather than teasing and reasoning out the solution we are just presented with an explanation. I felt it was a little anticlimactic and wished Farjeon had given that part of his story a little more room to breathe.

On the whole though I think this is a really quite thrilling and entertaining read. I would certainly suggest it above Mystery in White as a starting point with Farjeon and I’ll look forward to continuing to explore his works over the next few months.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Number in the Title (What)

Golden Age, Ronald Knox

The Viaduct Murder by Ronald Knox

ViaductThe Viaduct Murder is my first foray into the works of Ronald Knox, one of the founder members of the Detection Club who is perhaps best remembered for his Decalogue – ten commandments for writers of mystery fiction to follow. This was his first novel and the only one he wrote that does not feature his series sleuth Miles Bredon.

During a round of golf, four men discover a corpse lying in the long grass near a viaduct. They move the body and send for the Police. As they wait they start to investigate the body, finding some evidence they keep back for themselves.

There are some curious details about the manner of death that stand out to our would-be sleuths. One of them notices a golf ball lying on the viaduct while others are struck by his having two watches set to different times and a daily train ticket when, as a regular rider, he ought to have held a season pass. When the coroner returns a verdict of suicide, the group feel certain that the coroner is wrong and decide to investigate for themselves.

I initially found this novel to be quite hard going, in part because he is quite a verbose writer but also because Knox is prone to injecting casual commentary into his narration that can slow things down. Fortunately I did acclimatize myself to that style after some time and by the end I had come to appreciate some of the asides that he makes.

Knox’s four amateur detectives are a pleasingly varied bunch from different backgrounds. Among their number are a priest, an academic and a man who had served in intelligence during the War and they each adopt their own approach to solving the mystery.

That mystery is quite a neat little puzzle however that I think rewards the reader’s patience if they stick with it. There are some aspects of the case that are quite technical and will involve thinking about railway timetables and characters’ movements while other developments are more in the adventure style such as traps being set. Knox stitches these elements together well to tell his story and I appreciated that the clues keep coming right up to the final few chapters of the book, making the excitement build towards its conclusion.

One of my favorite moments in the book is also among its strangest as one of our heroes presents us with a use for chewing gum that I had never encountered before and which would be quite clever if Knox could convince me it was plausible. As it is, I think of it as one of the book’s many little quirks and appreciated its novelty.

I was a little less impressed with Knox’s ultimate choice of murderer and I did feel that the book suffers from not establishing enough credible, developed characters with motives to kill. This gave the moment of the reveal a somewhat anticlimactic feel but while the killer’s identity may not be a big surprise, I enjoyed the final chapter in which it is revealed precisely how they committed the crime.

 

While I was not blown away by The Viaduct Murder, I did find it an interesting introduction to Knox’s work and I would say that it is an entertaining read. I won’t be rushing out to read the rest of Knox’s work immediately but having read more positive comments about the Miles Bredon novels I will no doubt eventually give one of those a go.

Freeman Wills Crofts, Golden Age, Inverted

The Affair at Little Wokeham by Freeman Wills Crofts

DoubleTragedyI feel a little sad knowing that having now read Crofts’ fourth and final inverted mystery that no more will await me. Happily though I can say that I did save the best to last as The Affair at Little Wokeham or, to use its American title, Double Tragedy is my favorite of Crofts’ efforts in this field.

One of the things I am most impressed with is that Crofts does something different with each of those four mysteries, lending each its own unique feel. What sets this novel apart is that it is told from a number of different perspectives and that we are not sure at first which of the characters will be the one to kill Clarence Winnington. Indeed, the only thing we know in reference to the crime from the early chapters of the book is that a physician, Dr Mallaby, has aided the murderer in some fashion and is feeling a profound sense of guilt and professional shame but even in that case all may not be as it seems.

Mallaby has been a resident of the area in which this is set for some years, finding his situation in a small country medical practice to be comfortable but unrewarding either monetarily or in terms of satisfaction, considering himself a failure. Life in the village is fairly static and so there is much excitement when the locals learn that Clarence Winnington and his family have purchased one of the vacant large houses and are moving in.

The aging Doctor is among the crowd who first go to welcome the family to the area and while he intends to only give a short hello and be on his way, he is charmed to be asked to tea and soon starts making repeated calls to the house. He is charmed and enchanted by one of Clarence’s young nieces and though doesn’t believe that she could possibly return his affections, he does notice how unhappy she seems to be living with her uncle and starts to wonder if he she might accept him after all.

What Mallaby does not know is that she, her married sister and brother are all named as beneficiaries in the case of Clarence’s death and that she would stand to inherit some twenty thousand pounds. He first learns about this from her drunken brother early on the evening on which, by chance, that uncle will be found murdered and is utterly appalled, fearing that she might think he was interested in her for the money. He intends to withdraw his proposal of marriage to save her any embarrassment but before he can do so he learns that the old man’s body has been found in his library, beaten to death with a lead pipe.

I do not want to share much more about the story beyond Mallaby’s experience of these events because a huge part of the enjoyment of this book is in seeing how Crofts develops his story, figuring out which character will kill Clarence, why and also how Mallaby will perform that cover up that is referenced at the start of the novel. While I enjoyed the whole novel, these early chapters are particularly satisfying as we may wonder why the doctor would risk his professional reputation and the possibility of going to jail as an accomplice to murder.

The reason that I have focused so much on Mallaby is that the character and their role in this story is, in my opinion, the most interesting part of the novel. The doctor’s involvement in these events complicates them as, while we know he played no role in performing the killing, what he says will have a significant impact on French’s investigation. Knowing exactly how he has influenced the investigation means that we are already far ahead of the sleuth so the question will become how will French recognize this misdirection and reason his way to the correct solution?

While one of the characteristics of the Crofts inverted mysteries has been a reduced role for his series sleuth, the multiple perspectives approach adopted here allows him to get involved much more visibly in investigating the crime. As always, Inspector French approaches the investigation with an exhausting attention to detail, using reason and logic to try to explain each element of the crime but because Crofts is frequently shifting perspective, we get to see the case from multiple perspectives which helps to keep things interesting.

The second half of the book focuses on the killer’s attempts to cover up their involvement in the crime and while their plan is far from the most ingenious Crofts has devised, that honor going to Antidote to Venom, I think it has some very interesting moments. Part of the reason for this is that Crofts does not indulge too heavily in attempting to justify the killer’s actions the way he did in his previous inverted stories. This person does not perceive themselves to be the hero of their own story and so the passages where they reflect on what they have done are less melodramatic than in his previous works.

Instead of focusing on the killer’s emotional journey, our focus is drawn to the choices they make and of the plans they devise. This contrasts nicely with the scenes we see from French’s perspective and makes their relationship feel more antagonistic in spite of the fact they probably spend less time interacting than the villain and sleuth do in any of Crofts’ other inverted stories. Though their plan is not breathtakingly smart or original, the killer has the same methodical approach to committing their crime that French has in solving it.

It is that sense of balance within the narrative that I think is why I found this the most successful of Crofts’ four inverted mysteries. Between the frequently changing perspectives, the cat and mouse game being played by killer and sleuth as well as the introduction of a likeable supporting character who finds themselves drawn into the case, the book offers multiple points of interest and avoids repeating itself too much.

Sadly it is currently out of print but I do hope that with more of Crofts’ works becoming available again in the past few years that someone will choose to publish this one again. I certainly think it deserves to be rediscovered.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by blunt instrument (How)

This book was released in the United States as Double Tragedy.