Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Tuesday Night Club: Foreign Mysteries

 
The Tuesday Night Club has chosen Foreign Mysteries as this month’s theme – as usual, in any way the bloggerLogo likes to interpret it.

Bev at My Reader’s Block has produced another great logo for us, and she is also collecting the links this month.


Anyone is welcome to join in, either as a one-off or on a regular basis. Just contact one of us.


Originally the Tuesday Night Club concentrated on Golden Age detective stories, though we’ve become more loose about this as the months roll by. Last month (History and Mystery) I very much covered more modern books – so for this week (at least) I decided to go back to source. At first I thought of books by foreign authors, but I really don’t think I know very many GA books in that category. So it was time – as it so often is - to look at the Queen of Crime Writers, Agatha Christie. 

Now she was a woman who liked her foreign travel. And bang in the middle of the GA period there was this one…



Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie



published 1938


 
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[A group of travellers camping at Petra]
Sarah went down to the big marquee. She found her three fellow-travellers there. They were sitting at a table eating. The guide was explaining that there was another party here.

“They came two days ago. Go day after tomorrow. Americans. The mother, very fat, very difficult get here! Carried in chair by bearers – they say very hard work - they get very hot – yes.”

Sarah gave a sudden spurt of laughter…

[After an expedition] The party arrived back at the camp weary but in good spirits and with an excellent appetite for a late lunch. It was past two o’clock.

The Boynton family was sitting round the big table in the marquee. They were just finishing their meal.


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[Later] “Women do not look their best in the desert,” said Dr Gerard dreamily. “Miss King [Sarah] here, yes – she always looks neat and well-turned out. But that Lady Westholme in her great thick coats and skirts and those terribly unbecoming riding breeches and boots – quelle horreur de femme!”


 
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commentary: This is not one of my favourite Christie books, so I hadn’t read it for a long time and wondered what I would make of it.

Firstly, the desert scenes – the murder takes place at Petra - are very well done and interesting. It’s obvious from Christie’s Autobiography and Come Tell Me How You Live that she loved her trips and long stays with her 2nd husband, Max, on archaeological digs, and I think her knowledge of and love for the setting comes over well. I can’t tell you how pleased I was to find these pictures – all from the Matson collection at the Library of Congress – which really seemed almost like illustrations for the book, or stills from a film version. (There are hundreds of pictures of Petra at the LOC, highly recommended to anyone interested.)

When I did a previous post on travel in Christie, I said about the central family, the Boyntons:
Of all Christie’s horrible families, they probably have the distinction (against considerable opposition) of being the one you would least like to share a vacation with, even disregarding the murder.
-- and that’s about right on a re-read, though I think I was too harsh in that post, as, contrary to what I said,  only old Mrs Boynton is truly nasty, the others are just annoying and rather feeble. Mrs B’s malignancy is well-done, but it’s somewhat inexplicable: she’s just horrible for the sake of it, no joy or motive.

The book is mercifully short, though action-packed. I was thinking, reading other GA authors, how well Christie avoids those long boring middle sections, where everyone explains where they were, and people speculate on possibilities. There is quite enough of that here, but she does make it less boring than some other authors (looking at you, Ngaio Marsh).

And there are enough clothes in the book to keep me happy. I was interested that Sarah has been turned out of one of the holy places in Jerusalem because she is wearing a sleeveless dress.

And a character wears a double terai hat – explained in another Christie blogpost, by me, thus: ‘it’s the hat people wear in films and book illustrations set in tropical places, when they are not wearing a solar topee. It’s the other one.’ And in general what people wear in the desert becomes important.

Overall, my verdict was that it was much better than I remembered, though still not top rank. But the exotic setting was highly enjoyable.


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All photos from the Matson collection at the LOC, showing an expedition to Petra in the 1930s.

Tourists in Petra having dinner.
Tent at the camp.
Photographing Petra 1934.
Tinted photos – left and right.

























26 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed the setting for this one, too, Moira. And, although I agree with you that it's not Christie's best, I did like the way Poirot is intrigued by that line: You do see, don't you, that she's got to be killed. Very clever, I thought. As you say, Christie did characters better than these, but still, a clever story in its way, in my opinion.

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    1. Yes, indeed, I should have mentioned that very striking line, one that really brings the reader in on the first page. And it's never a waste of time to read any Christie, of course....I know you'll agree with me on that.

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  2. I've known at least one person who was close to being a real-life Mrs Boynton. In fact, I would even say that they were FAR worse. Truly a malignant piece of work, and one of the few people I will take great pleasure in learning that they have finally slithered off this mortal coil (undoubtedly complaining, blaming everyone else with lashings of venomous slander, and shit-slinging all the way.)

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    1. Some people really are malignant for the sake of it. They enjoy making others suffer.

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    2. They are VERY interesting to know/observe though. Like watching some kind of horribly poisonous serpent hiding/camouflaging itself before striking when it feels like it. Particularly fascinating to watch how they manipulate and exploit others, manage to convince those people that they're sooooo misunderstood, while getting away with the most whopping, monumental bare-faced lies and completely impossible, implausible claims. Absolutely fascinating to observe, although I personally think they should be boiled down for glue as I can't see any other earthly use for them. I know that's brutal, but then, they're really quite a repulsive person.

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    3. Daniel and Lucy: I'm glad that I have been lucky and avoided too many people like that, but your descriptions are chilling. You two and Agatha obviously know more about human relations than I do.

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    4. I was unfortunate enough to be trapped on a two week coach tour of China with one. Ghastly.

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    5. That does sound like a nightmare. On the other hand, would make a good novel.. or murder story...

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  3. Those pictures are a great find. Definitely agree that Mrs B is probably the worst person to go on holiday with ever. If you're interested in trying GAD fiction from non-UK writers I would Augusto De Angelis and his book The Mystery of the Three Orchids in particular, as it is set in a fashion house in Italy.

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    1. The book certainly has memorable characters. And thanks for that tipoff, I'm definitely going to be looking for that book - perfect for me for this meme...

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  4. Of course I love when you talk about Christie, Moira, and I agree with you about this one. I would go so far as to say that there's more than a touch of Marsh in the lengthy interview section. (This book has a larger list of suspects than usual.) This is one of those cases where Christie's grasp on human psychology strikes me as highly simplistic and designed merely to serve the needs of the plot. Mrs. Boynton is a sadist. It's proven by the fact that she was a prison warden. She treats her kids like her prisoners because IT'S JUST THE WAY SHE IS! And, as it turns out, it is the impetus of the whole round the world trip! There must have been cheaper ways to go about doing that. And the kids are such wusses that it becomes unbearable, yet there's no reason to explain why they are the way they are, ALL of them! It just serves the plot. But I love the characters who revolve around the family, and I love the use of quotations - the one Margot quoted, which starts the novel, and Mrs. B's proclamation: "I never forget - not an action, not a name, not a face!"

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    1. And people really get stuck in stifling families and lose the ability to even think there might be a way out. See Ivy Compton-Burnett's family!

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    2. Brad, I'd like to claim that you and I apparently have a nicer view of the world than others, we both find mindless malevolence unconvincing. But I must say I find Daniel and Lucy's comments here very convincing and to the point. I am taking their remarks into consideration...
      And, as I said to Margot, never a waste to read AC.

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  5. Moira, I'm afraid I haven't read a lot of Christie though I'm familiar with all her books (thanks to my wife's impressive collection). It seems to me that she enjoyed writing stories set outside of England, and was comfortable too. Of course, she travelled a lot and that probably helped.

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    1. You need to get started on those books Prashant! Now that we know that you have them in the house you have no excuse...

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  6. Back in my teens when I was devouring Christie my favorites were those that included settings in the Middle East and archeology. My best pick from this group would not by the one reviewed here but instead Murder in Mesopotamia because the plot is so over-the-top and preposterous. There were so very different from what most people think of when her name is mentioned. For me, a kid in growing up in a boring Connecticut "village" as they often referred to our town in the local weekly newspaper, they truly felt exotic.

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    1. You know, I see SO few people mentioning Murder in Mesopotamia - but I actually really liked that one, it always comes as a big surprise to me because I seem to remember it as being worse than it actually is, and every time I re-read it, I am SO pleasantly surprised that it's actually really quite good.

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    2. Yes I agree with you both - I nearly did MiM, but decided it was too familiar to me, and it would be more interesting to make myself read AwD.
      There is a basic huge problem with the plot of MiM, a most unlikely fact, but I loved everything else, particularly the details of life on the dig, and I think I could draw the house plan from memory. Like you, John, I had a whole new world shown to me as a distinctly un-travelled teenagers.

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  7. Only a few years ago I saw someone asked to leave a shrine in the Holy Land because she was wearing a sleeveless top. It's considered disrespectful to show shoulders or knees; I think this is the case for both sexes.

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    1. Yes, I was in a CAthedral in Budapest a few years ago, and there were fierce older ladies at the entrance - we'd been warned not to wear shorts, but if they didn't like your shoulder and neck exposure they wrapped a shawl around you. At least they were trying to ensure you did make the visit!

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  8. Great photos!

    It might be a slightly eccentric view but APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH is one of my all-time favourite Christies. I do love Christie when she does exotic settings.

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    1. Thanks, and yes, she is good on foreign settings. And although AwD is not one of my favourites, I can totally understand its appeal.

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    2. This has always struck me as a novel with a real sense of place. You know that she is telling you about something that she has seen rather than simply read about. However, the plotting is also excellent. You mentioned Marsh, and she is very often guilty of stopping the story dead so that we can listen to all of the suspects going on at great length about their alibis. Christie never fell into that trap becausae she seemed to genuinely care about things like structure and pace (she tends to drop her clues to the reader at points where she knows that their attention will be distracted). It's one of the reasons that Christie is still read so avidly.

      It's hard to be certain, but I do wonder whether Lady Westholme is supposed to be Lady Astor. There is a certain resemblance, and Christie might have assumed that the contemporary audience would guess whom she was based on.

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    3. Yes, much more sense of place than her English-set books ('Market Basing was a small town with one main street' is about the level) and very authentic. Very interesting point about Lady Westholme, never thought of that but definite points of comparison.

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  9. If I could get myself back in the habit of reading Christie, I would get to this one sooner. Even if it is not one of Christie's best, I am sure I will enjoy it.

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    1. It's definitely worth reading - even though it's one of of hers that I have read least often.

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