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.