Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Murder Is Announced

A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks, at 6:30 p.m. Friends, please accept this, the only intimation.
--The North Bentham News and Chipping-Cleghorn Gazette, Personals
Now who, Miss Lemon asks, could resist such a tempting little advert?

Certainly not any of the residents of Chipping Cleghorn, who show up, each in turn, at the home of Letitia Blacklock, expecting at the very least to get a decent glass of sherry, if not a game of murder.

There's Mrs. Swettenham -- who finds the advertisement too strange: "Not at all like Letitia Blacklock, who always seems to me such a sensible woman" -- and her son, Edmund. The Easterbrooks (Colonel and Mrs.), Bunch Harmon, the vicar's wife, and the cozily situated Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd, as well as some quite distant cousins of Miss Blacklock and her hysterical cook Mitzi, from somewhere in middle Europe.

When the clock chimes half past six, however, the murder turns out to be no game at all. The lights go out, shots are fired, and a bullet finds its mark in the body of one Rudi Scherz, a Swiss national working at the Royal Spa Hotel in Mendenham Wells. Two others barely miss Miss Blacklock, the unsuspecting hostess.

The obvious questions for Inspector Craddock are these: 1) Who placed the notice announcing the murder for all and sundry to see? 2) What was Rudi Scherz doing at Little Paddocks? 3) Was someone trying to kill Miss Blacklock? 4) What on earth is the motive?

True to Agatha Christie in top form, A Murder Is Announced folds into a classically perplexing puzzle.

A little investigating reveals that Miss Blacklock is likely to inherit a large sum of money, should her employer's widow predecease Miss Blacklock. And that, my dear readers, seems likely to happen soon.

Of course it takes a villager to know a village, and so Miss Jane Marple descends upon Chipping Cleghorn, armed with her knitting needles and the village parallels required to untangle this mysterious small-town murder.

Mrs. Christie has oft been criticized (as recently as in the newly published Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James) for her stereotyped characters and sleight of hand. Miss Lemon thinks this unfair. What many of Mrs. Christie's critics fail to recognize is her mastery at interpreting character quirks, her gift for writing snappy dialogue and most of all, her ingenious plotting skills. All of these graces are present here.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Name of Annabel Lee

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we --
Of many far wiser than we --
Like that Old Bailey Hack, Horace Rumpole, Miss Lemon sometimes finds it restorative to quote a bit of poetry when faced with a puzzling set of circumstances. Certainly so must have Julian Symons, the creative mastermind behind a string of great whodunits, including The Plot Against Roger Rider, The Blackheath Poisonings and The Name of Annabel Lee.

For Mr. Symons's poetry professor turned sleuth (the excellently named Dudley Potter), however, the life and creative works of Edgar Allan Poe turn from a scholarly pursuit into something a bit more sinister.

Dudley Potter, like countless academics before him, had given up on love when he meets, seemingly by chance, the aptly named Annabel Lee Featherby. In a blink, the pair end up living together in their inevitable 'Kingdom by the Sea' ... and then things go terribly wrong.

Dudley wakes one morning to discover a vicious hangover and a note on the mantlepiece. His love envied by the angels above is gone. With nothing more than the clues in Poe's work to go by, Dudley tries to find her. His quest, not surprisingly, reveals more closeted skeletons than even Poe can lay claim to.

So, my dear readers, if you like poetry and mystery, and the two twined together, there's little doubt you shall like The Name of Annabel Lee.

Interestingly, Mr. Symons seems to have a bit in common with his protagonist. He was a poet and literary critic of some renown, as well as the founding editor of Twentieth Century Verse, a London-based poetry journal that rivaled New Verse in its heyday. He was also, like his fictional protege, a visiting professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts, and, not ironically, the 1961 and 1973 recipient of the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award. He was the 1982 MWA grandmaster.

Mr. Symons departed this earthly realm on 19 November 1994.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Killings at Badger's Drfit

Miss Lemon was pleasantly surprised at how much she recently enjoyed reading two entries in Caroline Graham's Midsomer Murders series, which feature the worldly Chief Inspector Barnaby and his sometimes surly partner, Sergeant Troy.

The duo from Causton CID make their debut in The Killings at Badger's Drift, with Badger's Drift being a quaint little English village not so unlike another fictional scene of murder among the tea-sipping set: Flaxborough.

In Badger's Drift, a spinster English teacher on the trail of a ghost orchid spots something among the flora that's far more sensual -- and scandalous.

And more than one resident of Badger's Drift proves willing to go to any length to keep Miss Simpson's find a secret.

In Written in Blood, the fourth entry in the Midsomer series, the Midsomer Worthy writer's group gets more material than it ever could have hoped for after one of its founding members is found bludgeoned to death after a key meeting.

What binds both of these novels together, beyond the recurring characters, is Ms. Graham's clever way of revealing the dank and twisted recesses that accompany the human condition. Everyone in these stories, it seems, has something to hide -- if not something of which to be outright ashamed.

Ms. Graham also has an exceptional sense of humor, and quite frankly, a gift for delicious satire. Whether she's skewering the absurdities of post-modern theatre (viz, Brian Clapton's "Slanghwang for Five Mute Voices" in Written in Blood) or Mrs. Barnaby's complete and total lack of culinary skill, Miss Lemon promises you that you will laugh, aloud and often, while reading her work.

Cats and dogs also make excellent characters in the Midsomer series. The author makes an Irish wolfhound and a stray cat called Kilmowsky come more vividly to life than entire casts of characters featured in weaker novels that Miss Lemon has read.

In sum, she thinks that if her readers enjoy a cracking good murder with their afternoon tea, then they will enjoy just about anything by Caroline Graham.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lonelyheart 4122

Miss Lemon, my dear readers, fears she has met her match.

Never did she expect to find within the pages of Colin Watson's Lonelyheart 4122 a character of such remarkable individuality and on par (if you will pardon Miss Lemon for saying so) with the more enigmatic creations of Mrs. Agatha Christie herself -- Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, Mr. Harley Quinn, and, er-hem, Miss Felicity Lemon.

(If my Christian name comes as a surprise, take comfort in the fact that it's been an extraordinarily well-kept secret. Even Mr. Poirot didn't discover it until 1955, when working on the Hickory Dickory Dock case.)

The character to rival Miss Lemon's sphinxdom is one Miss Lucilla Teatime, described as "remarkably trim and handsome." Indeed, those with the fortune to meet Miss Teatime instinctively approve of her ... "for there was in her appearance the flattering suggestion that she had taken pains to spare one personally the spectacle of yet another dumpy, disgruntled, defeated old woman."

Hmmm. Miss Lemon is not entirely sure that the foregoing passage is complimentary. Then again, perhaps isn't wasn't meant to be. In any case, Miss Teatime, just arrived from London, is far and away more than the regular folk of Flaxborough ("a market town of some antiquity with remarkable social and political intransigence") bargained for.

Shortly after her arrival in said town, Miss Teatime becomes a client of a matrimonial agency with a dubious reputation for success. Two of its women clients had recently laid hold of large sums of money and then went missing. Which is where Inspector Purbright comes in.

Come to think of it, Purbright rather reminds Miss Lemon of her dear friend Japp: tall, gangly, well-meaning but sometimes a little slow on the uptake. Perhaps there's more of Agatha Christie in Colin Watson's work than he'd care to admit.

What Miss Lemon is sure of, however, is that fans of her can't help but become fans of him.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

School for Murder

"I write only to entertain," said Robert Barnard.

After reading School for Murder, and enjoying it immensely, Miss Lemon could hardly quarrel with that assessment.

The novel has all that a connoisseur of the British mystery could hope for: an insular setting (this being Burleigh, a third-rate boys' school in a remote corner of the county of Swessex), a poisoning, a cast of shady characters and a quirky detective -- all served with a dish of delightful satire.

Mr. Barnard, it seems, is known for his incisive observations and dramatic wit. The Burleigh School, with its penny-pinching headmaster (the superbly named Edward Crumwallis), substandard boarding annexe, out-of-date texts, grubby gamesmaster and hated head boy, makes the perfect stage on which he can exercise his skills.

One need look no further than the opening gambit to see that one is in for a treat: "A fly buzzed in the Staff Common Room of Burleigh School. It provided a fitting accompaniment to the voice of headmaster."

Mr. Crumwallis is busy bewailing newfangled curricular standards. Why Golding, when one can just as easily have Black Arrow or Westward Ho, he fulminates.

Dorthea Gilberd (Junior English, Junior History) isn't snowed. "Or, to put the matter more honestly, thought Dorthea Gilberd, tearing her glance from Tom Tedder, why don't they prescribe books that Burleigh School has already got copies of?"

Events take a more serious turn when a series of misfortunes befall the boarding annexe: an ill-placed razor blade, strong booze in the fruit squash ... and then much worse.

In all, it's a school-days satire cum detective mystery that keeps one guessing -- and laughing along the way.

Mr. Barnard, an alumnus of the Royal Grammar School in Colcester, Essex, and longtime university lecturer in English knows well of what he speaks. Miss Lemon is pleased to have discovered him -- and she hopes you will be, too.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

One Across, Two Down

It should come as small surprise to her readers that Miss Lemon is an avid worker of crossword puzzles. To enjoy them, one must have a smattering of foreign languages, geography and music, and keep up on popular culture and sport. It's just the sort of activity that calls upon one's logic and resourcefulness. It's perfect for those employed in a library ... or perhaps a detective agency.

Miss Lemon has recently taken to solving American-style crossword puzzles. Less overtly clever than their British counterparts (the punning clues are far fewer), the seeming simplicity of these puzzles is the real challenge. Only an hour ago, Miss Lemon sat sipping her afternoon tea and wrestling with whatever would be a four-letter word for 'Type of shark,' first letter 'L,' last letter 'N.' By the time she got to her last bite of scone, she had it: LOAN.

Only in America would this fish swim in a fiduciary sea.

But lest Miss Lemon be diverted from the true purpose of this column, it is this fondness for crosswords that drew her to Ruth Rendell's One Across, Two Down (1971), and she recommends it for her readers now.

The novel, like her later (and perhaps stronger) Judgment in Stone (1977), is a whydunit rather than a whodunit. But true to the threads that bind all of her fiction, Ruth Rendell doesn't stint on suspense -- or psychological exploration of character.

The character in question in One Across, Two Down, Stanley Manning, has no ambition in life beyond becoming a master setter of crossword puzzles. Oh, and getting his hands on his live-in mother-in-law's £20,000.

When Stanley loses his job at a petrol station, he finds he has little more to do than the daily crossword.

Naturally, Stanley's idle mind turns to murder.

Miss Lemon won't reveal the bizarre set of circumstances that unfold -- one might be able to guess them. But suffice it to say that long before the inheritance comes due, Stanley find himself embroiled in a most unwise investment.

There is perhaps a bit more violence in One Across, Two Down than what Miss Lemon typically cares for, but the clear-eyed deftness with which Ruth Rendell portrays Stanley's motivations -- and the workings of his mind -- make it easy to overlook.

And Miss Lemon must admit, Stanley Manning, in the midst of his paranoid stupor, invents some of the cleverest -- if not craziest -- crossword clues.

She thinks you will enjoy this one immensely. Now if you will pardon Miss Lemon, she thinks she's heard the Evening Standard dropped outside her door.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Third Girl

Critics tend to pooh-pooh the later works of Agatha Christie, deeming many of them bloated, meandering and old fashioned.

Miss Lemon begs to differ with this pronouncement. She holds up for her readers Exhibit A: Third Girl, published in 1966 -- forty-six years after Mrs. Christie's debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

Not only are the themes up-to-the-minute (at least for the 1960s), the pacing is sharp and the clues are deftly -- but not unfairly -- disguised.

The plot is this: A young woman, modishly dressed, with long, stringy hair and a faraway look in her eyes walks into Mr. Poirot's office and announces that she thinks she may have committed murder. But, maddeningly, she isn't sure.

Kidnapping, drug-taking, fine-art forgery and murder ensue, and all the while Poirot remains stubbornly at sea -- a most irritating state for the famed detective's little grey cells.

The novel takes its title from a shared-flat arrangement. The young woman unsure of her criminal status is the 'third girl' leasing luxury digs together with an executive secretary and an art gallery employee. Poirot feels sure that this set-up holds the clue to finding how and if a murder took place, but he struggles to uncover it.

Were it not for the help, albeit unasked for, of Poirot's compatriots in crime detection, he probably wouldn't have solved the mystery at all. Indeed, what makes this novel so delightful is its quirky cast of characters (a certain citrus-monikered secretary included among them).

There's Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, a prolific crime novelist herself, in between books, who insinuates herself into Poirot's investigations so far as to get koshed on the head.

Georges, Poirot's trusted valet, appears to make a few very helpful character assessments. And then there's Miss Lemon, "who was standing by, waiting to be efficient."

In all, Third Girl is a fun, fast-paced whodunit worthy of Agatha Christie -- no matter what the critics might say.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Birthday Diversions

As if her fans don't know it already, Sept. 15 is Agatha Christie's birthday. To mark the occasion, Miss Lemon consulted her impeccably organised files and found a few fun things to do in honour of the day.

1. Test one's Agatha Christie acumen with an online quiz dreamed up by those clever book people at the Guardian.

2. Take an Agatha Christie blog tour. Please forgive Miss Lemon if she points out that she is featured on Tuesday.

3. Read any one of Agatha Christie's 80 crime novels or short story collections. Miss Lemon's personal favourite: Death Comes as the End (1945). A quirky choice, Miss Lemon realizes, but this novel's special allure is its ancient Egyptian setting, which shows that murder among polite society is no British invention.

4. Have a rock cake with Devonshire cream for tea. And if you've some raspberries on hand, pile them high. This was one of Agatha Christie's favourite treats.


Saturday, September 5, 2009

Felicitations, Agatha Christie

Miss Lemon begs your pardon whilst she marvels over the swift passage of time. She's not the first to observe the indifferent haste of the time-space continuum, she realizes; however the 15th of September, which will be so suddenly upon us, is Agatha's Christie's birthday. Were she alive today, she would be 119 years old.

To Miss Lemon, it seems only as if it were yesterday when she could look forward to a tantalizing new whodunit from the pen of this doyenne of mystery at the rate of at least two a year. The creative winds that filled Mrs. Christie's sails in the late '30s and 1940s still stagger:
And Then There Were None (1939)
Sad Cypress (1940)
Evil Under the Sun (1941)
N or M
The Body in the Library (1942)
Five Little Pigs (1942)
The Moving Finger (1943)
Death Comes as the End (1945)
Come, Tell Me How You Live (1946)
Taken at the Flood
Crooked House (1949)
A Murder Is Announced (1950)
Good heavens. These books came out more than sixty years ago. And they are only the highlights.

Mind you, there was a war was going on then. And when there wasn't, Agatha Christie spent a significant portion of her time helping her second husband, Max Mallowan, with a major archaeological dig at Ur.

But lest Miss Lemon set herself adrift on a sea of sentimentality and stray from the purpose of her column, she'll use the felicitous occasion of Mrs. Christie's birthday to recommend her magnum opus memoir: An Autobiography.

The book was published in 1977, the year after her death on 12 January 1976. But Agatha Christie had set to work on it in Nimrud, Iraq, on the second of April 1950. She wouldn't put the final period on it for another 15 years.

As one might expect, the scope of Mrs. Christie's memoir is wide and richly detailed. Her characteristic joie de vivre tumbles over most all of the 644 pages.

One will remark also her shyness and professionally uncharacteristic modesty. Mrs. Christie simply refused to view herself as a professional writer until well after the roaring success of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and her divorce, when she turned to her writing to support herself. Even then, she looked at her success as a writer grudgingly and with a laundry list of qualifiers.

Nevertheless, the narrative of An Autobiography belies her own assessment. She recalls vividly, for example, the creepy story of 'The Elder Sister,' that Agatha's own elder sister would tell to frighten her as a child. Madge would assume the low voice and shifting countenance of a mad sister sent away and now returned to seek revenge. Agatha would shriek with an equal mix of terror and glee. From that moment, she must have remarked that there's something intensely enjoyable about feeling afraid in the comforts of one's own drawing room.

As in so many of Mrs. Christie's mysteries, the most simply stated observations can be the most revealing.

Voyeurs and sensation-seekers, Miss Lemon fears, will be disappointed. There's no mention of Mrs. Christie's eleven-day disappearance: the 1926 mystery that led her husband Archie to be briefly suspected of Agatha's murder. But then, Miss Lemon wouldn't have mentioned it either.

Indeed, Agatha Christie writes in preface to her memoirs, "I have remembered, I suppose, what I wanted to remember." That for Miss Lemon -- and, she suspects, for most of Mrs. Christie's admirers -- is more than enough.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Secret Notebooks of Agatha Christie

Miss Lemon is beside herself with anticipation.

On the 3rd of September, little more than a week from now, HarperCollins will publish 73 of Agatha Christie's manuscript notebooks, complete with character sketches, plot outlines and scenes from her books, several of which don't appear in the published versions.

Author John Curran came across this source material while sifting through papers that were once squirreled away at Greenway, one of Mrs. Christie's favourite seaside homes in Devon.

Although the notebooks are not in fact as 'secret' as the publicity agents at HarperCollins might lead one to believe (two of Mrs. Christie's biographers, Janet Morgan and Laura Thompson, used them in their researches), Miss Lemon feels certain they will appeal to crime fiction fans far and wide. For at the very least, these notebooks contain clues to the creative processes of one the sharpest minds in British mystery history.

Miss Lemon fears, however, that Mrs. Christie would be dismayed at the news that so excites her readers. She was a tremendously shy woman, who guarded her privacy fiercely. The journals, which are reported to be a collection of scraps, scribbles, and trial-and-error sketches, should in no way be mistaken for the coveted Christie method.

Mrs. Christie was more the sort to take long walks and compose fiction in her head. She completed the first draft of The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) while wandering the craggy reaches of Dartmoor. As she progressed in her career, Mrs. Christie mapped out murders and talked out dialogue while scarcely ever setting pen to paper.

In fact, Agatha Christie hated writing out her novels in longhand. She relied on the sage assistance of her personal secretary, Charlotte Fisher, to take shorthand. And by the 1930s and 40s, Agatha found herself 'writing' primarily by dictaphone.

Even so, this in no way lessens Miss Lemon's eagerness to lay eyes on the notebooks, for the scarcity of Mrs. Christie's autograph manuscripts only increases their fascination. There is also the possibility, however remote, that some astute reader of this volume may discover the key to one of the most puzzling enigmas of the twentieth century: the creative genius of Agatha Christie.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Sittaford Mystery

By 1931, the year she published The Sittaford Mystery, Mrs. Agatha Christie's mettle as a mystery writer was known to fans far and wide.

Though Miss Jane Marple had yet to feature in a full-length novel, Monsieur Hercule Poirot's egg-shaped head and fierce grey cells were happily wreaking havoc with England's most devious upper-crust villains. He pounced prissily on the scene in 1920 in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Finding himself on terra firma, and thinking it suited him quite nicely, Poirot decided to remain.

(And remain he would for another fifty-five years, until -- as all mortals will -- he met his end in Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, published in 1975.)

Meanwhile, Mrs. Christie carved out a quiet little corner in her craft, which, as Miss Lemon's readers hardly need reminding, remains a roaring success.

Agatha Christie became master of the cosy.

Now, one may well ask, what's so cosy about murder?

Doubtless, Mrs. Christie would reply: it's all in the mise-en-scene.

Indeed, atmosphere is one of the mystery elements in which Mrs. Christie excels. And The Sittaford Mystery is no exception.

The setting is a microscopic village on the loneliest edge of Dartmoor, centered around a stately English pile called Sittaford. The nearest town, Hazelmoor, is six miles away. It is deepest winter and snowing buckets.

The inhabitants of Sittaford can think of no more cheering activity than having a go at a macabre round of table-turning. The message from beyond? A man has just been murdered. One Captain Joseph Trevelyan, late of the Royal Navy -- and now late of his life as squire of Sittaford.

True to form, Mrs. Christie hands her characters more than ample motive and opportunity for murder to go around. What's unusual (refreshingly so, Miss Lemon thinks) about this novel is that it features none of her famous detectives. There's only the shrewd Inspector Narracott, spurred on by the industrious ingenuity of one Miss Emily Trefusis, who refuses to let her fiance get done for murder.

Even more surprising is the astonishingly low body count. But let Miss Lemon remind her readers that The Sittaford Mystery is a cosy afterall.

The book was re-titled Murder at Hazelmoor in America, a title Miss Lemon grants is adequate. But why the irksome change became necessary in the first place remains a mystery. In any case, Miss Lemon rests certain that this delightful whodunit will surprise and charm even the most inveterate readers of crime fiction.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Find Me a Villain

Miss Lemon was just ruminating on the insular English village. One doesn't find anything quite like it in other English speaking parts of the world, like, say, America or New Zealand -- does one?

With names like Hanging on the Wold, Bishop's Cleeve and Little Tipping, there's a netherworld charm to these places that so stubbornly resist the modern tread of time. They are places where, not so many years ago, one had to sort out in advance which neighbors were or were not on the 'phone. It hardly mattered in any case, as the neighbors are never more than a few hundred yards' walk away.

They are places that, even today, some English know only through the novels of Agatha Christie. At least that's the idea of village life held by Nina Crowther, the protagonist of Margaret Yorke's excellent mystery called Find Me a Villain (1983).

The Mrs. Crowther in question is a lifelong Londoner, and she's just been chucked by her philandering husband. Having no profession or training beyond housekeeping, she goes to the village of Netherton St. Mary to act as houseminder for Priscilla and Leonard Blunt, owners of a stately village pile called, simply, The Hall.

Rivaling its stateliness is the nearby Manor, owned by Col. and Mrs. Jowett. The two families' lives have intertwined over the years in a manner akin to Virginia creeper and village stone masonry.

Lacking the village parallels that prove so useful to Miss Marple as she susses out the villains in St. Mary Mead, Mrs. Crowther hardly knows what to make of the requisite eccentricities of her neighbors. Col. Jowett, retired from the Army and now a painter of dubious talent, wanders off from time to time, sometimes forgetting where or, indeed, who he is.

Heather Jowett is earthy and dotty, known to wander the village fields randomly planting bulbs and clearing brush. Then there's the Blunts' gardener, Dan Fenton, retired from an unspecified career in civil service, who makes frequent and unexplained trips to London.

Margaret Yorke, a former librarian and chair of the Crime Writers' Association, deftly evokes the mood of classic village mystery. The Hall, for example, is too distant from the village centre to receive delivery of a daily paper. And during an especially violent gale, Mrs. Crowther loses her telephone connection.

Alone with herself for the first time in perhaps twenty years, Mrs. Crowther quickly begins to suspect that her kooky neighbors perhaps aren't quite as harmless as they first appeared. Meanwhile, when the telephone is in order, Nina receives a series of calls in which the person at the other end utters nothing but a baleful sigh. Add to that, the disappearance and murder of several young runaway girls, two bodies of whom turn up near Netherton St. Mary.

The title of this suspenseful and moody novel, Miss Lemon begs her readers to note, is ironic. For the last place Nina Crowther expects to find a villain is in the sleepy English village she supposed would provide refuge from the rough sea of urban existence.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Death on the Nile

In between organizing case files and preparing Mr. Poirot's tisanes, just so, Miss Lemon happened upon a most enlightening essay by her fellow countryman, W. H. Auden. In it he makes the delightful, if not sheepish, confession that he is addicted to reading detective stories.

Bravo, Mr. Auden! Miss Lemon suffers from just the same affliction.

In "The Guilty Vicarage" (1948), the learned poet makes several astute observations about the mystery genre. He smartly sums up the form thus: "A murder occurs; many are suspected; all but one suspect, who is the murderer, are eliminated; the murderer is arrested or dies."

According to Mr. Auden, a really good detective story requires the following elements:
  1. A closed society that by its nature excludes the possibility of an outside murderer. An English manor house will do nicely; likewise a vicarage or a railway car. All in this society must bear some relation to the others and all must be considered suspect.
  2. The characters in the story must be aesthetically interesting -- i.e., eccentric -- and inherently good. They are living in a state of grace. Evil must be expunged.
  3. The innocent in a detective story must at some point appear guilty, and likewise the guilty must seem innocent.
  4. The job of the detective is to restore the state of grace to the closed society and reconcile its aesthetic appeal with ethical virtue. Furthermore, the detective should be an exceptional individual and living in his or her own state of grace.
Death on the Nile, the 1938 novel by Agatha Christie, has all the elements set forth in Mr. Auden's essay and is a hypnotizing whodunit to boot. The closed society in this case is the Nile vessel called the Karnak, and on its ill-fated voyage are the newlywed Simon and Linnet Doyle; Simon's just-jilted fiancee, Jacqueline de Bellefort; the oh-so-eccentric mother and daughter duo, Mrs. and Rosalie Otterbourne; the cantankerous communist, Mr. Ferguson; Signor Richetti, an archeologist; the cultured Mrs. Allerton and her layabout son, Tim; Andrew Pennington, Mrs. Doyle's American trustee; the imperious American heiress, Miss Van Schuyler, and her unfortunate nice, Cornelia; a German physician, Dr. Bessner, various maids, stewards and other holiday assitants....

And of course, Hercule Poirot. Colonel Race also makes a coincidental appearance, and provides scarcely-needed assistance to the great Poirot.

Indeed, Miss Lemon thinks that perhaps this one could be retitled "Poirot's Finest Hour." There is no shortage of pride (dare one say arrogance?) on Mr. Poirot's part.

As the reader has surely noticed: the field for the innocent who must all in turn appear guilty is vast and wide. The characters have no shortage of quirks. Mrs. Otterbourne is an obnoxious novelist, obsessed with sex (between the pages) and her own declining book sales. Like the real-life Agatha Christie, Mrs. Otterbourne doesn't touch alcohol. She's also written a novel called Snow Upon the Desert's Face. (Mrs. Christie's first novel -- written as a child -- was titled Snow Upon the Desert.) Also represented among the passengers of the Karnak are jewel thieves, kleptomaniacs, hypochondriacs, gamblers, jealous lovers and spies.

Miss Lemon didn't leave out murderers ... did she?

But through all this confusion -- and the spectacular backdrop of the Nile and Egypt's ancient and foreboding ruins -- Mr. Poirot sees clear. When he readies to reveal an embarrassing secret about one of the travelers, she asks, "But then, how do you know?"

"Because I am Hercule Poirot! I do not need to be told."

And there, Mr. Auden, is your exceptional detective, returning the passengers (who remain alive) on the Karnak to a state of grace.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Close Her Eyes

Miss Lemon wonders if her readers ever feel the same sense of privation that she sometimes feels after finishing a particularly good whodunit.

Such was the case when she turned the last page of Close Her Eyes, an especially absorbing mystery from the pen of Dorothy Simpson, first published in 1984.

Although the murder was solved and all the fraying ends that emerged during the investigation neatly nipped, Miss Lemon hoped the story would continue. She enjoyed it that much.

The work of Mrs. Simpson is new to Miss Lemon, who picked up this entry (number four in the series featuring Inspector Luke Thanet) at a second-hand bookshop only the week before last. And please let her say that the $1 given over for the purpose (yes, Miss Lemon confesses to occasionally purchasing books from the other side of the Atlantic) was worth every cent.

Although editors, publishers, librarians and other such people who like to organize, classify and label literary works would probably call this novel a police procedural, Miss Lemon found herself particularly taken by the psychological explorations of victim, criminal and investigator. She suspects that if her readers like the work of Ruth Rendell, then they will also like that of Mrs. Simpson.

In Close Her Eyes, the author elegantly illustrates that too often, man is the author of his own torment and unhappiness. The mystery here centers on the death of Charity Pritchard, the unlucky daughter to a martinet father and passive and ineffectual mother -- and all of the family members of a fanatical religious sect called The Children of Jerusalem.

Needless to say, Inspector Thanet's investigations turn up behavior on almost every character's part that many would consider less than Christian. At the same time, the Inspector tries to exorcise a demon of his own.

What Miss Lemon likes best about the Inspector's cerebral approach to crime solving is his careful analysis when it comes to questioning suspects and witnesses. He not only calculates how and what he'll ask before he asks it, but also tabulates the response or lackthereof with a facility and precision not seen in even his most luminescent literary forebears -- Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Monsieur Hercule Poirot included.

Fortunately, Miss Lemon had the foresight to snap up two other works by Dorothy Simpson during her recent acquisitions spree. She'll be reading Last Seen Alive (1985) and Element of Doubt (1987) and reporting back to her readers shortly.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Pocket Full of Rye

Miss Lemon has just finished reading a delightfully chilling take on the old Mother Goose nursery rhyme, "Sing a Song of Sixpence." She's sure you remember how it goes:
Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing;
Now wasn't that a dainty dish,
To set before the king?
In Agatha Christie's version, titled A Pocket Full of Rye and published in 1953, the dainty dish that's set before the king is a cup of poisoned tea. The king, in this case, is the financier Rex (she's sure the allusion won't escape you) Fortescue, and the poison is taxine, the byproduct of the leaves and berries of the yew tree.

As every bookish child knows, more verses follow the two quoted above, and Mrs. Christie, true to form, makes sure the trail of murder falls right in step with the rhyme, if not reason, of Mother Goose.

A Pocket Full of Rye is -- in Miss Lemon's estimation -- a neat and clever little mystery, made all the more intriguing by the rare appearance of Miss Marple outside the gates of St. Mary Mead. A personal involvement with the maid "hanging up the clothes" draws Miss Marple to Yewtree Lodge, trailing with her a fantastic string of village parallels which she uses to help Inspector Neele tie up this puzzling case.

Miss Lemon couldn't think of a cosier way to pass a rainy Sunday afternoon than with A Pocket Full of Rye.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Taken at the Flood

"In every club there is a club bore."

Has a truer or wittier opening line ever been written?

Miss Lemon thinks not.

Indeed, she feels that one can find one of the cleverest beginnings of all time among the opening pages of Agatha Christie's 1948 detective novel, Taken at the Flood.

(Disclosure: Agatha Christie also created Miss Lemon; but she promises that this coincidence in no way influences her partiality.)

The fact is that from this rousing starter, the novel only gets better. The club bore in question is one Major Porter, late of the Indian Army. Mrs. Christie continues: Major Porter "rustled his newspaper and cleared his throat. Every one avoided his eye, but it was no use."

Ah, one can't help but feel the same sense of captivity -- the dread certainty that one will be regaled with a monologue of such colossal dullness that escape to quiet sanctuary becomes the impossible dream.

No one listens to Major Porter as he drones on about his neighbor, Gordon Cloade, blown to bits in an air raid, and the woman he'd married -- quite unexpectedly and late in life; no one cares.
'Got married while he was over there. A young widow -- young enough to be his daughter. Mrs. Underhay. As a matter of fact I knew her first husband out in Nigeria.'

Major Porter paused. Nobody displayed any interest or asked him to continue. Newspapers were held up sedulously in front of faces, but it took more than that to discourage Major Porter. He always had long histories to relate, mostly about people whom nobody knew.
No one seems to care, that is, except one M. Hercule Poirot, the sole auditor among this unwilling audience -- the only one who has the grey cells limber enough to perceive that the details of the saga being recited may one day prove significant.

And that's exactly what happens when the extended Cloade family, a breed of decaying gentility, find themselves embarrassingly dependent upon the new Mrs. Gordon Cloade, who survived the bombing.

When a stranger turns up in Warmsley Heath who might perhaps be the original Mr. Underhay -- and then is murdered -- there's plenty of motive and opportunity to go around. And plenty of skeletons that want airing from the family cupboard.

Miss Lemon thinks that Agatha Christie nears the height of her powers in Taken at the Flood -- with characterization, with verbal repartee, with setting and scene. This should also be counted among her most tightly plotted novels. Elements of disguise, mistaken identity and the frailty of first appearances add to the narrative intrigue.

The title, Miss Lemon begs her dear reader to note, is taken from William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, IV.iii:
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
A clever framework on Mrs. Christie's part, as the tragedy of the Cloade family begins to look quite Shakespearean indeed by the close of the novel.

Miss Lemon's only quarrel with Taken at the Flood is the final scene -- a superfluous resolution so sentimental that Miss Lemon shudders to recall it. But as it has nothing to do with the commission or solution of the crime, Miss Lemon can overlook it. She trusts the reader will do the same.

Now if you will please excuse Miss Lemon, she must get back to her filing.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Library for Miss Lemon

"Anything that she mentioned as worth consideration usually was worth consideration."

Were Miss Lemon, Agatha Christie's paragon of organization and efficiency, not employed as private secretary to two of the world's top detectives, one can't help but think that she'd make a librarian, nonpareil.

Even if her appearance is a bit severe, Miss Lemon's judgment is impeccable; her reason unshakable. What she may lack in imagination, she more than makes up for in exacting good sense. In short, Miss Lemon is a woman who errs almost never and who can be relied upon always. She's even set plans afoot to patent the perfect filing system.

Connoisseurs of crime fiction fist make Miss Felicity Lemon's acquaintance in Parker Pyne Investigates. But it's Hercule Poirot (that perennial student of human psychology) who sums her up so smartly in Hickory Dickory Dock: "She was never ill, never tired, never upset, never inaccurate. [...] She knew everything, she coped with everything."

Who better to turn to when one needs a good mystery recommendation?

But fiction being what it is -- and Agatha Christie's detective fiction, especially, being so unforgettable -- Miss Lemon will be forever fixed among the pages of Poirot's phone messages, client calling cards and case files and Mr. Parker Pyne's statistics. Even so, it's not difficult to imagine the library of crime fiction Miss Lemon would amass if given the proper resources.

Her first-hand experience with the masters of armchair detection has doubtless developed a palate for only the choicest whodunits, which she will periodically recommend in "Miss Lemon's Mysteries."

Occasionally, Miss Lemon may find it prudent to recommend books that are not technically crime fiction but yet are works that she feels possess such adequate intrigue or suspense to warrant notice in this column. We hope you can forgive Miss Lemon the occasional peccadillo. She's never really wrong, you see...

Next time, she promises to take on the work of her own creator in her review of Taken at the Flood (1948). Of course, if in the interim one feels the urge to read up on the redoubtable Miss Lemon herself, one should look no further than the above-mentioned Parker Pyne Investigates (1934) or the equally good Hickory Dickory Dock (1955). You'll also see her in Dead Man's Folly (1956) and the aptly-named Elephants Can Remember (1972).