Friday, October 12, 2012

Friday's Forgotten Books, October 12, 2012-AGATHA CHRISTIE

Need we say more. The most published author in history save Shakespeare and the Bible. The first grandmaster of the genre. She is responsible for two of the best known sleuths in the business with Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. Most of us crime fiction lovers went right from Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys to Dame Agatha Christie.I vividly remember buying one book after another the summer I was nineteen.I read them on the beach and don't think I noticed the ocean in front of me.

Check out her numbers on Amazon today and she is still outselling most contemporary writers. But I doubt I need to tell any of you this.

Kerrie Smith (below) extends an invitation to link reviews to her caravan this month. Read her link to see how. 

Endless Night by Agatha Christie 

(Review by Deb)

About me:  After being a technical writer for the better part of twenty years, I was a stay-at-home mom for a while.  About ten years ago, I went back to work in the public school system.  I currently work in a special ed classroom with severely-autistic students.  It's challenging work, but also very rewarding.  I love to read across all genres, but mysteries are my favorite.

I realize how improbable it would be to know Agatha Christie solely through this one novel, first published in 1967; but, in the unlikely event that you were only aware of Christie as the author of ENDLESS NIGHT, you would be hard-pressed to connect her with the creator of Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and the village "cozies" with which her name is most often associated.  ENDLESS NIGHT is atypical for Christie, a novel in which frank sexual passion is a driving force and a vague supernatural menace permeates the atmosphere.  It is the closest thing to noir that Christie ever wrote.

In first-person narration, we meet Michael Rogers, a twenty-something working-class drifter who has held multiple jobs, always losing them because of his inability to control his restless, impulsive nature (today he'd certainly be diagnosed with ADD/ADHD).  Despite his poverty, Michael is a man who enjoys the finer things and has a great eye for art, although he obviously cannot afford the abstract canvases that move him.  He spends money when he has it (sometimes by betting on long shots at the track) and has no desire to follow his mother's admonition to settle down at one job and start saving for the future.

While he is working as a chauffeur in Europe, Michael meets Rudolf Santonix, a world-famous architect.  Despite the gulf between their backgrounds and professions, an unexpected friendship springs up between the two because of Michael's innate understanding and appreciation of Santonix's artistic vision--which, Santonix freely admits, requires a great deal of money to implement.  Later, while working in Devon, Michael becomes enchanted by a piece of land known as "Gipsy's Acre."  According to local lore, the land was cursed by the band of gypsies who were driven off it years before.  In the passages describing Gipsy's Acre, Christie's powers are in full effect--allowing us to discern something ominous and unsettling in the mysterious wind-swept beauty of the land. 

During a subsequent visit to Gipsy's Acre, Michael encounters a young American woman named Ellie and they strike up a conversation.  This leads to several dates, although they meet secretly to avoid interference from Ellie's protective and disapproving family.  As soon as Ellie comes of age and into a large inheritance, she and Michael marry.  There are some interesting scenes as Michael discovers the extent of Ellie's wealth and meets the people it takes to manage such a vast amount of money, particularly Ellie's urbane lawyer, Andrew Lippincott. 

Michael also has to navigate the tricky move from English working-class to upper-class (noticing, for example, that the shabby clothes and broken-down vehicle of a neighbor, Major Phillpot, do not prevent him from being the community's de facto social leader).  Despite the class snobbery that was often apparent in Christie's books, here she lets us feel some sympathy for the fish-out-of-water Michael as he attempts to come to grips with who he is in the society he has entered as a result of his wife's money.  I would guess that Agatha Christie chose to make Ellie an American in part to leave Michael alone in dealing with these issues; being an American, Ellie is less aware of the difficulties of transcending the English class structure.

Knowing Michael's love of Gipsy's Acre, Ellie purchases the land for them and hires Rudolf Santonix to build their dream house on the site.  But things start to go wrong:  A local woman repeatedly warns Ellie that she will suffer if she stays on Gipsy's Acre; Michael argues constantly with Gretchen, Ellie's bossy best friend who has come to stay for an open-ended visit; Andrew Lippincott asks Michael enigmatic questions about his background and acquaintances; and anonymous acts of vandalism are committed, all of which seem aimed at driving the couple out of their home and off Gipsy's Acre. 

Amid this turmoil, a death occurs: a tragic accident--or is it something more sinister?  I really can't say much beyond this without giving away the rest of the plot, especially a very surprising (to me, at least) twist.  Some readers who are more perceptive than I may guess the "shocking revelation" before it is explained, but I must admit I was caught off guard the first time I read it.  This is one of those books that makes you want to start rereading immediately after finishing to see how Christie makes excellent use of what Robert Barnard calls her "talent to deceive" as misdirection and casually-dropped clues (not to mention a few red herrings) lead us away from what is actually happening.

So, if you're in the mood for a Christie where the solution to the crime does not involve missing buttons, broken shoe buckles, or clocks being turned back ten minutes (not that there's anything wrong with that), ENDLESS NIGHT is the book for you.

Incidently, there was a fairly good movie adaptation of ENDLESS NIGHT made in 1972, featuring Hywel Bennett, Hayley Mills, Britt Ekland, and George Sanders (in one of his last roles).  It is available for instant viewing on Netflix, but I would strongly recommend not watching it until you've read the book.


This is an excellent book in which to find a prime example of the plotting that made Christie a master of a certain type of mystery. Her ingenuity and puzzle- master mind is on display in aces at PERIL AT END HOUSE.

Detective Hercule Poirot and Captain Arthur Hastings are spending a weekend at a hotel in a seaside town in Cornwall. Poirot is once again claiming to his friend that his days as a detective are at an end when they meet the novel's central character. Nick Buckley is a young woman who can ill afford the house that looms in the distance, End House. She confesses to Poirot that she has met with three near misses lately and Poirot immediately decides these incidents are not accidents but attempts on her life. Nick's wealthy, aristocratic inner circle comes under immediate scrutiny and a distant cousin is brought to End House to provide Nick with protection. Before very long, Maggie, the cousin, mistaken for her Nick, lies dead. There are letters, wills, eavesdropping, addicts and all the classic tropes the classic British mystery excelled in. END HOUSE is a wonder in its plotting.  What it lacks in character, it makes up for in its ability to keep you guessing and interested. Oh for a tenth of her ability to plot.

Agatha Christie, THE ABC Murders (1936) Jeff Meyerson
I had a tough time deciding which Christie book to write about today.  Should it be the first I'd read, And Then There Were None (certainly a fine choice) or her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) or one of her most famous, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Murder on the Orient Express?  Or perhaps I should go with one of the short story collections.  I read most of these a very long time ago.  We first went to London on our belated honeymoon in April of 1971 and while there we saw The Mousetrap (then in its 19th year!) and bought two of her books more or less at random, the late Poirot book The Clocks and the better Miss Marple The Body in the Library.  I've read over 80 of her books, mostly in the first half of the 1970's.  In the end I decided on this one.
The ABC Murders is not your typical Poirot book, despite the presence of his Watson, Captain Hastings, and Inspector Japp.  For one thing, there are different points of view, including Hastings, the unknown serial killer, and a man who seems to be the prime suspect, Alexander Bonaparte Cust.  A series of murders takes place, each in alphabetical order, first Alice Ascher in Andover.  Each has a copy of the ABC railway guide by the body.  And Alexander Bonaparte Cust (initials ABC), a traveling salesman prone to blackouts, was in each of the places on the day in question.  Could he be the "madman" who is sending Poirot taunting notes?
[I suppose I should give a SPOILER ALERT here for those who haven't read it.]
Naturally, Poirot figures out that the killer isn't Cust or a random madman but a very clever (if not quite clever enough) killer with a definite motive.  If you've watched any television crime shows I can guarantee you've seen the ABC pattern used over and over again, and an astute reader and viewer will be able to spot it.  I am not claiming Christie invented it (I have no idea who did) but she did perfect it here.  And I think I will stop here before further spoiling a book you should definitely read.
Christie wrote a number of classics during her long career and this is definitely one of them.  Her books do not need to be read in order but if you're picking out a few to try, put this on your list. Jeff Meyerson

Ed Gorman is the author of the Dev Conrad and Sam McCain series of crime fiction books. You can find him right here.

Some of the reviews of this novel, written at the time of its publication, will make you smile. Replace Poirot with an old woman named Miss Jane Marple? How"unrealistic" she is as a detective. As if Poirot is an exemplar of hardbitten realism. (I've always preferred Jane to Hercule.)  

This is my favorite Christie novel for three reasons. First she obviously set out to ransack the cliche set-up of the mysterious body found in an unlikely place, in this case the library of an upright, upper class couple whose social reputation is beyond question.  

Second because in looking into the background of the dead young woman Christie examines both the class system--not only is the young woman's corpse a problem, so is her lower order upbringing, as disturbing in its way as death itself--and the show business life she lead. 

Which leads into point number Three. Suspects include people at a nearby posh hotel where the dead woman was (among other duties) a substitute dancer in the nightly cabaret. Christie's social eye and ear are as good for the realm of lower order performers as they are for pompous upper class members who pay to see them.

But Christie being Christie she has to do a little trashing of the moderne which takes the form of a young Londoner who uses his home here for wild assignations and parties. He is connected to the film industry which makes him a fitting target for Christie's satiric side.  Film industry? You mean boorish idlers who deflower naive young women and plunder otherwise happy marriages?

As I mentioned some of the initial reviews knocked the novel for its unrealistic detective (Jane Marple) and plotting. I ran across a quote from that most excellent writer Robert Barnard that  makes the case for the book very well.  "Bravura performance on a classic situation. St Mary Mead regulars figure in the case, pleasantly diversified by fashionable seaside hotel guests and the film crowd. If you think what happens to the body after death is unlikely, try the more 'realistic' P.D. JamesAn Unsuitable Job for a Woman."
Sergio Angelini                                                                                               
Yvette Banek
 Joe Barone
Bill Crider
Dorothy Hayes
Jerry House
Randy Johnson 
Nick Jones
Lois Karlin
George Kelley
Rob Kitchin
B.V. Lawson
Steve Lewis
Todd Mason
J.F. Norris
Patrick Ohl-see Kevin Tipple
Richard Pangburn
James Reasoner
Richard Robinson
Kerrie Smith
Kevin Tipple
Prashant Trikannad

And other Forgotten Books
Brian Busby
Scott Cupp
Martin Edwards 
Curt Evans 
Nick Jones
Evan Lewis 
Richard Pangburn
Ron Scheer
Michael Slind 


Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Patti, thank you for including the link to my post. It's fascinating to walk down the Agatha Christie hall of fiction and reading the numerous views and reviews of her novels here. Plays, readings, movies, TV serials, graphic novels, blog posts...Christie's work has seen it all.

Ron Scheer said...

Nicely said, Patti.

YA Sleuth said...

This makes me want to go back to my Christie books... Her books made me fall in love with mysteries.

Nick Jones (Louis XIV, the Sun King) said...

Great stuff, Patti! And thanks for the non-Christie link; I have another book this week which might also be of interest: The Big H by Bryan Peters, alias Peter George, author of Red Alert, the basis for Dr Strangelove. More on him next week.

And on a Christie tip, I've a post
here on the dust jacket designer of Endless Night, including a comment from his granddaughter.

Thanks again!

Charles Gramlich said...

I had an aunt who read all of her work. I borrowed and read one of hers but I don't remember which one now.

TomCat said...

Stop the presses! I have a (late?) entry for today: Clyde B. Clason's Blind Drifts (1937).

J F Norris said...

Ah nuts! I was hoping for once no dupes. But we got two reviews of THE SECRET ADVERSARY. Oh well... One good thing: more short story collections reviewed than I expected!

neer said...

I hope I am not too late for the party. Here's a review of Christie's Sparkling Cyanide


Dorothy Hayes said...

Patti, thanks again for including a link to my Women of Mystery post. I was surprised by Anna Katharine Green's work and influence on Agatha Christie since I had no knowledge of her. I actually gobbled up Agatha Christies as a young stay-at-home mother as well. I sometimes got annoyed at her red herrings since those were the days when you could actually solve the crime by the clues in the story.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Please feel free to write a review of a forgotten book any time. Always looking for new voices.

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Oh dear, I missed the Christie week. I knew you were doing it, and I was planning on reviewing either Sparkling Cyanide or The Secret of Chimneys, but somehow it snuck up on me unawares.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Oh, sorry. Another time perhaps.

J F Norris said...

ENDLESS NIGHT is one of Christie's under-appreciated landmark books, IMO. Very glad that Deb gave such a thoughtful and smart review ("closest thing to noir she ever wrote" yes, indeed!) on what I consider the best of her final writing period. Much of what followed in the 1960s and 1970s is weak or absolutely dull (CURTAIN does not count as it was written in 1940). Not so with ENDLESS NIGHT, a fine crime novel with some of Christie's most enthralling in depth character work - something which she is often maligned for not having.

Richard L. Pangburn said...

Well, I posted my FFB at this link:

But then I remembered the Agatha Christie memo so I also posted this:

Rick Robinson said...

Jeff - ABC Murders has long been one of my favorites, though I've read it enough times there is no longer any surprise in it. Still well done. Good review.

Patti - Peril at End House is another favorite, at least I recall it fondly, having read it just once, and quite long ago, one of the first of her books I read.

So next week we're back to plain ol' our choice, eh? Any ideas for the next arthur-specific FFB?

Deb - That's one I haven't read, and am unlikely to, since I prefer her Marple, Poirot and T&T novels and shorts, and there are so many of those. Does sound interesting, though. Great review.

Rick Robinson said...

Um, that should have been "author-specific". Duh. More coffee...

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

According to her Autobiography, Christie's own favourite books were CROOKED HOUSE and ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE and she was apparently influenced by the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Graham Green, Charles Dickens and Alexander Dumas, among others.

Anonymous said...

I was hoping for short story reviews and glad to see there were some. In the 1920's she wrote a bunch of what you could call the "young adventurer" type books, including the early Tommy & Tuppence stuff, THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT, etc. Fun to read but definitely silly for the most part.

I often tried to solve the Christies as I read along and occasionally I did. One of those I was proud of figuring out was PERIL AT END HOUSE.

Jeff M.

Yvette said...

Patti, just posted mine. Thanks for your patience.

Yvette said...

Great review of ENDLESS NIGHT, Deb. You know, to my shock and horror, I don't think I've ever read this. Or if I did it was only once back in the annals of prehistoric time.

I will definitely be reading it sooner rather than later. It sounds very intriguing.

Jeff - THE ABC MURDERS is one of my top five Christie books. When this pattern of murder is used (as it is frequently) it is usually referred to as an ABC crime. If she didn't invent it, she perfected it.

Patti - PERIL AT END HOUSE is the sort of book in which it is hard to really like anyone, but still you keep reading. I do remember when I first read it ages ago, I was shocked by the ending.

Christie's ability to confound is brilliance personified. At least to my mind.