Carmela wants me to read Agatha Christie's Cat Among the Pigeons to her this weekend.
"This must be the worst Agatha Christie book ever."
"The math is off, so badly and so often..."
I heard a story on NPR the other day in which a professor had analyzed several of Agatha Christie's novels. He fed the text of a selection of them that spanned her career into a computer. He was looking at what he referred to as "indefinite words" (thing, something, anything, etc) and he also noted the number of different words used. Apparently in her penultimate novel,
Elephants Can Remember
, her vocabulary dropped by 20 percent and her use of these indefinite words spiked. It has been speculated that Dame Agatha suffered Alzheimer's disease.
I have loved her books. I read the Miss Marple series, then reluctantly read the Poirot series - start to finish. In order. (I ended up loving the Poirot books as well, but for entirely different reasons.) In the later novels a character named Ariadne Oliver was somewhat of a sidekick to Poirot. She was a writer, a scatty writer who seems very much to be a way for Christie to poke fun at herself through her novels.
I also read her
. Hers wasn't a glamorous, action-packed life that one would associate with a celebrity, but
was frank and sincere. She indicated that she wrote her first mystery because she had time on her hands and it was a kind of challenge her sister had given her. She had studied piano and singing. She had done needlepoint. Writing was sort of the next step. She referred to her work as "definitely low-brow". I never read that she began - or continued - writing because of a fire inside to write, a calling or an inner need to write. She looked at it financially. If she produced one book a year she could live on that. (Granted, she also said that she could write whatever she wanted to aside from that, which gave her time to write other non-mystery books that may or may not sell.) Ariadne thought to herself in
Elephants Can Remember
that she wasn't necessarily Noble, as one reader had called her, "She was a lucky woman who had established a happy knack of writing what quite a lot of people wanted to read."
Back to the novel. The NPR story indicated that she might have been expressing her mental situation in the book. (My goodness, she was 81 years old when she wrote
Elephants Can Remember
. I probably would have gotten bored of the whole thing much earlier than that.) I had already read this book, but hearing the story on the radio I had to read it again. This time it was different for me. That is to say that I took note of the atmosphere more than I previously had. It has a slight air of melancholy and even Hercule Poirot waxes nostalgic in thinking about his relationship with Ariadne. People complained that it was confusing trying to keep up with the disparate events and conversations, that there were discrepancies in the timing. The second time I read it I noticed those. Some of them were clearly discrepancies, but some of them were - it seems to me - part of the story.
The murder is one that happened in the past. How far back in the past is part of the question. Ariadne sets out to interview "Elephants" because elephants can remember. That is the way of this book - what people remember and why. How, even when people remember things incorrectly, it can be a good clue, because there is probably a reason that they remembered them that way. The events changed from one person's story to the next. The murder was 10 years ago, 15, 12. The ages of the people involved changed or were inconsistent with information that other people told Ariadne. But, that's the way of people who remember.
The murder in question was a tragedy; everybody agreed about that. And there seemed to be a certain sadness in everybody when talking about it. Even people who would love to gossip, even people who knew very little about it. Perhaps it was Ariadne projecting her weariness. Because she was weary. She was tired. It seems that she didn't want to continue investigating and even her natural curiosity wasn't enough to keep her going. Her goddaughter is why she continued. Her goddaughter feared that she might have inherited a genetic disposition to mental disorder and was hesitant to marry the man she loved.
If Christie was having trouble with memory, maybe this was her way of expressing it. So many people have said that it was one of her worst novels. But, maybe it is a better work of art if one looks at it from a different perspective. Don't look at it so much as a mystery. Set aside all of the other mysteries that she wrote, in which one took every little fact into consideration when trying to figure out whodunnit. Set aside the inconsistencies, or rather look at them in a different way. What if the book is not so much about a mystery as it is about memory. What if Dame Agatha was painting a picture of what life is like when one begins to lose their memory. The person is confused, lost in the details that are remembered incorrectly, tired from trying to think and remember, a little sad that they aren't as lucid as they once were. Of course she would present this painting in a mystery novel; that's what she was known for, that would be the best way to get people to read it. She had already established a character she could use to represent herself. It's brilliant, and beautiful and a little sad. But, she was woman who loved life. She did so much. And through it all, she kept writing.
Agatha Christie is my hero.
I read Agatha Christie's Autobiography. It was kind of interesting the way she described when she was a teenager hearing and reading that Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated and nobody thought much of it. Days passed and they read about the development, still without too much concern. It took precisely one month for WWI to begin - from the Archduke's assassination on June 28 to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia on July 28, 1914.
Here we sit as the Powers discuss chemical weapons use in Syria.
March 11, 2013
Page 131. The end is approaching and I'm not emotionally prepared for this. Out of 166 pages, 9 of them are about the author, related products, etc. So, there are a total of 157 pages of novel. And I'm on page 131. I've gone from the early interbella period through the 70's and now I'm approaching the end. In 1920 Agatha Christie published The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first novel and the first Hercule Poirot mystery. Admittedly, I'm less fond of Poirot as I am of Miss Marple, but even she was born of a side character (not of the same name) in an early Poirot novel.
Thirty-three novels spanning from 1920 to 1972. And, I'm at the penultimate, which is probably the last of the Poirot novels I care to read. I read all of the Miss Marple novels first, but there are only 12 of those. I wrote about them here. I began to read the Poirot mysteries almost begrudgingly. "If I can't have the character I want I'll go ahead and read these." That was more or less my mindset. I've taken issue with him on occasion, but good lord, with that many novels not every one of them can please everybody. But, I've grown accustomed to him. I look forward to weekends with a light novel and a nap on the sofa. The Miss Marple novels helped me keep my sanity when I lived in a small town 20 miles from Austin (I ramble about that here) and Poirot has become a part of what I enjoy about my apartment; part of what makes this little place feel like home.
And now I'm on page 131.
The last novel is called Curtain and I'm almost certain that Poirot dies in it. It was written during WWII and set to be published postmortem. Actually, it was published just before she passed away, but after she had realized that she would not be able to write another novel. I'm not certain I want to read about him dying. It would be like watching the Last M∙A∙S∙H, knowing that Hawkeye was going to die. (He doesn't.) Miss Marple also had a final novel written at the same time and it was published after Christie passed away. I read it in the order it was written in, not published, so it fit in. (I think that Christie adjusted Curtain to fit in at the end of the series, but didn't get a chance to do so with Sleeping Murder.)
There's always Tommy and Tuppence, but, I'm not excited about them. Maybe I'll give them a whirl. There aren't that many of their novels. They could at least tide me over until I find the next thing that I want to read.
And, this is a remarkably long series. I really have nothing to complain about. When I started it, and I found an official reading order, I felt comfortable that I'd be set for a while. I guess I was. But, now it's coming to an end. I'm on page 131 and this is likely the last one I'll read and I'm sad, and not just a little anxious. How will I fill my Saturday afternoons? Cleaning? Pffft! I'm going to go to bed now and read. It's likely that I will be finished with the book before I fall asleep. And then tomorrow will come along and somehow I'll go on. Maybe I'll cry.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
January 6, 2013
If you are considering reading all of the Hercule Poirot novels from beginning to end, may I suggest that you skip Hickory Dickory Dock, AKA Hickory Dickory Death. This is not Agatha Christie's greatest achievement in literature.
First of all, there are just a lot of characters. I was tired from trying to keep them all straight. I do give Christie credit, because I was, indeed, able to keep them straight... beginning about a third of the way into the book. And I'm very inclined to not pay attention to names and get lost. And, I don't want to call her a racist, because I don't believe she was, but some of the characters – the majority of whom are foreign and some from Africa and India – were not very developed and the result was that she seemed to rest on racist stereotypes. In her repertoire, Christie doesn't have a lot of characters of color. I just felt a little uncomfortable with her treatment of them in this book. Not all of them, but enough to make me uncomfortable.
The book does have some redeeming qualities, though. There's the issue of Communism. The book actually does a good job of recording the mindset of the time. Written in 1955, it is post-WWII, the beginnings of that long ideological conflict known as the Cold War, and after McCarthy's famous declaration of his list of names. Though the word McCarthyism is not used, the word Communist is thrown around frequently, especially by frustrated men who have nothing more substantial to accuse the foreigners of, so they default to the inquisition-style of accusation. Interestingly, she doesn't seem to make the issue of Communism a sinister threat, just an epithet used by men who should probably mind their own business.
It's also amusing the way Christie pokes fun at Poirot – square crumpets and symmetrical sandwiches. He likes square rooms and furniture rather than round. He almost seems like a precursor to Monk, the OCD detective of television.
But, the plot includes smuggling and blackmail and Christie doesn't seem at her best with those subjects. In reading different reviews, I've come across more than one complaint about the convoluted plot, and it is almost comical in its twists. It was virtually impossible for me to suspend disbelief, and I'm a very forgiving reader. I think, though, that the overly twisted plot had more to do with her being in unfamiliar territory than just being unable to come up with a workable story line.
And God bless that Ariadne Oliver. She makes an appearance in the very next novel, Dead Man's Folly. In it she says, "It's never difficult to think of things. The trouble is that you think of too many, and then it all becomes too complicated, so you have to relinquish some of them and that is rather agony."
Some people who reviewed the book wrote that all in all it was worth the read because it was entertaining. Honestly, I had never thought of it that way, and I've been reading books for over thirty years. Possibly I've felt the same way before, but really, what an idea: a bad book is okay because one enjoyed oneself while reading it. I'll have to think about that a while. However, in this case I disagree. I don't think I enjoyed myself enough to justify having spent time reading it. Square crumpets can only take you so far.
Thank you for reading.
View all my reviews