After enjoying Edward Sorel’s cartoon in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review – The Literati Sketchbook – I was inspired to research Agatha Christie and her marriages.
Archie Christie, Agatha’s first husband, was a dashing pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. After fourteen years of marriage to Agatha, he did leave her for a younger woman, Nancy Neele. Surprisingly, Archie Christie did love golf, as noted by Sorel, and belonged to the Sunningdale Golf Club. (“He spent many of his weekends there while Agatha worked on her novels in their London flat.”)
After discovering her husband’s affair, Agatha did disappear: “A major police hunt was undertaken, and Christie was questioned by the police. She was discovered ten days later at the Old Swan Hotel in Yorkshire, registered under the name of her husband’s lover… and suffering from a complete loss of memory when found and identified by her husband.” – just as Sorel depicts in his cartoon.
After divorcing Archie, Agatha meets and marries Max Mallowan, an archeologist fourteen years younger. They live happily ever after for forty-five years.
In the last frame Sorrel shows an old Agatha solving the mystery of happiness in marriage, saying:
“An archeologist is the best husband any woman can get. The older she gets, the more interested he is in her.”
Amazing what cartoons can teach us. Might be fun to see the 1979 film version with Vanessa Redgrave as Agatha. Roger Ebert reviews the film – here.
Sophie Hannah was chosen to continue the legacy of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot in two novels following the grand Dame’s style, and when you finish Keep Her Safe, you will understand why. Murder, kidnapping, a distraught pregnant British mum, an arrogant American former prosecutor/talk show host, and a few policemen – set in a posh Arizona spa – come together to offer an entertaining mystery, Agatha Christie style.
Several plot lines intersect to keep the reader off balance but the main focus targets the murder of a young girl whose body has never been found. The girl is spotted at the luxury spa after a flustered hotel clerk hands out the wrong room key to a jet-lagged British customer who not only becomes the instigator for the search of the girl but also becomes a victim. As the story goes in and out of the possibilities, Hannah has the characters dancing in a complicated and sometimes confusing maze. I lost patience with long pages of letters, interview transcripts, and descriptions of towels and pools at the luxury spa worthy of a marketing ad. When the action finally picks up, the flashbacks, journals and court documents come together in a clever reveal of the true villain.
Just as Agatha Christie neatly summed up the action, laying bare the motivations of all the characters in her last chapter, so does Hannah. Just in case the reader lost the thread of who did what to whom, she clearly explains it all in the end, exposing the villains and restoring faith in the system. Except – there is an added surprise – leaving the ending with an uncomfortable and shocking revelation.
Although mystery books are not the best focus for a book club discussion, Sophie Hannah’s twists and surprise ending in Keep Her Safe might make the exception. The ending would be worth discussing. If you’ve read it, let me know how you feel about the ending.
Review of The Monogram Murders
She’s baaack… When Flavia de Luce was shipped off to boarding school in Canada at the end of Alan Bradley’s last installment of the precocious detective, I sadly thought the series was over. Happily, Flavia returns in As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, with a charred and mummified body falling from the chimney in her dorm room at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy before she has a chance to settle in.
With Flavia’s penchant for chemistry, as she concocts imaginary ways to eliminate annoying characters, she rivals Agatha Christie for powerful and effective ways to murder. You wouldn’t want Flavia for an enemy. Bradley’s tongue-in-cheek humor appeals to adults; where else can you be a twelve year-old again, planning revenge for perceived slights.
But the discovery of the murder, and the journey to whodunit drives the plot with suspects and motives. Flavia always uncovers key clues, and following her to the final reveal through several plot twists is fun. What a relief to know she will continue to entertain readers as she solves unlikely murders.
For more reviews of Flavia de Luce novels, start with The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches
If you are missing Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Sophie Hannah’s reincarnation of the famous Belgian sleuth in The Monogram Murders will not disappoint. In an interview, Hannah, famous for police procedural crime thrillers, noted:
“Try as I might, Agatha Christie is unique. The actual writing style can’t be exactly the same, so instead of trying to replicate it exactly, the way I got around it was by inventing a new narrator… a Scotland Yard detective called Edward Catchpool. He’s a bit unsure of himself, and worries people are going to see through him all the time. He’s the sidekick who’s quite good but he’s nowhere near as good as Poirot. I think readers will like him and identify with him. I did.”
“Nobody has ever written as many enjoyable, fun-to-read crime novels as Agatha Christie. It’s all about the storytelling and the pleasure of the reader. She doesn’t want to be deep or highbrow. So many writers want you to know their world view. Christie doesn’t, she just wants you to enjoy her books. You can be exhausted, have flu, a hangover, you always want to read Agatha Christie.”
I was easily ensconced in the solving of these three murders – dead bodies discovered in different rooms of the same London hotel, each with a monogrammed cufflink placed in their mouths. The murders take place in 1929, although the motive proceeds from events 16 years earlier. Poirot is in good form – and a comforting element – as he slowly unravels each clue, commenting in French phrases. The plot is as intricate and as puzzling as a Christie mystery, and Hannah manages to replicate the old-fashioned style and Poirot’s egotistical manner. And yet, the story seems to go longer than I remember Christie doing, and the aha element seems a little lacking at the end. Christie always managed to tie up all the loose ends in a final chapter, succinctly and quickly, but Hannah’s resolution meanders until you are wondering if Poirot will ever explain. Still a good detective story, The Monogram Murders may be more Hannah than Christie, with a visiting Poirot as a bonus.
Who killed the plastic surgeon with three wives? Alice La Plante’s latest who-dun-it expands the likely suspects beyond the obvious possibilities in A Circle of Wives to sustain the mystery until the end.
When Dr. John Taylor, the altruistic plastic surgeon who saves children’s lives, is found murdered in a hotel room, his reputation suffers some tarnishing when his three wives appear at the funeral. La Plante alternates the action among the three: Deborah, the long-suffering and calculating first wife who holds the ten million dollar life insurance policy and orchestrated her husband’s life; MJ, the seedy accountant who loves to garden and has an abused brother who needs money; and Helen, the ambitious doctor who is pregnant with his child. The fourth voice in the story belongs to the young detective, Samantha Adams, who pursues the murder, and has her own personal problems, not the least of which is her lack of self-confidence. As she interviews each wife, her own story weaves into the drama and nothing is as it seems.
With La Plante’s style of short sentences and steady dialogue, the story clicks along at a steady pace, and will hook you into solving the crime as you read. As she slowly reveals the possible motivation that each wife has to kill, La Plante manages to distract and foil the reader through a series of viable possibilities.
Sam Adams solves the case and confronts the murderer, in a scene worthy of Agatha Christie – all questions are answered, all loose ends resolved – yet the story ends on ambivalent note – will the murderer be punished or held accountable? Unlike Monk or Columbo, Sam Adams seems satisfied without the “admissible evidence to convict.” You can decide if justice is served.