Friday, February 19, 2010

And Then There Were None

'Death of a Mystery Writer.' 'And Then There Were None.' Pardon Miss Lemon if she's beginning to sound a bit morbid. But when it comes to British mysteries, the titles are half the fun.

That's especially true in the case of this Agatha Christie classic, first published under a different title in 1939. However, And Then There Were None, the name given to the first American edition published by Dodd, Mead & Co. in 1940, better foreshadows the tension that lurks between the covers of this mystery masterwork.

Ten ordinary and unsuspecting British folk are invited to Indian Island, off the coast of Devon. Ferried to this barren and isolated rock by Sticklehaven's very own Charon, the guests of Indian Island soon realize their peril.

First, there's the odd set of glass figurines on the dining room table. Ten little Indian boys. Then there's a disembodied voice, outing for all and sundry the skeletons that lurk in each guest's closet. All, it seems, have been guilty of a crime The Law can't touch.

And as a final, damning flourish, all the guests find the following nursery rhyme, posted in their bedrooms:
Ten little Indian boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.

Nine little Indian boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.

Eight little Indian boys traveling in Devon;
One said he'd stay there and then there were seven.

Seven little Indian boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.

Six little Indian boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.

Five little Indian boys going in for law;
One got in Chancery and then there were four.

Four little Indian boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.

Three little Indian boys walking in the Zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.

Two little Indian boys sitting in the sun;
One got frizzled up and then there was one.

One little Indian boy left all alone;
He went and hanged himself and then there were none.
What fascinates the reader -- and the murderer, as it happens -- is that inevitable diminishment. That creeping terror that comes with the first death, then the second, and so on, each in accordance with the circumstances the nursery rhyme presaged.

The book rather reminds Miss Lemon of A Pocket Full of Rye. But it's much more sinister.

Just when you think, dear readers, that you know who's behind this inexorable string of murders, you'll be asked to think again.

This is, after all, Agatha Christie at the top of her game.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Death of a Mystery Writer

For her readers who cherish every quirky aspect of the classic British mystery (and if you're reading this column, surely that means you), may Miss Lemon recommend Robert Barnard's delightful Death of a Mystery Writer (1978).

The novel has everything, from a cold-blooded poisoning in the polite village of Wycherley to a gaggle of disappointed heirs and a Welsh detective who's just far enough left of the mainstream to stir up the long (long) list of suspects into an amusing set to.

Few and far between are the people who know best-selling mystery writer Sir Oliver Fairleigh-Stubbs and would not like to see him dead. As insufferable as the Welsh detective he creates, Sir Oliver likes nothing better than to get the better of his inferiors. Whether he's insulting his neighbour's wine or making his children grovel for favour, Sir Oliver Fairleigh-Stubbs finds no shortage of enemies.

Worse, his novels aren't even good. Sir Oliver knows little about crime or its detection, and he has never once met a Welsh person.

And that's just what makes Death of a Mystery Writer such a deliciously smart satire. Miss Lemon may even go so far as to give it that terribly modern label: meta-mystery. With chapter titles and dramatic twists that allude to the masters, like Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie, the ironies abound.

To wit: when Sir Oliver Fairleigh-Stubbs at long last drinks a deadly draught of nicotine-tainted Lakka, a Welsh detective is called in to investigate. The murder, more than one of the suspects remarks, could have been taken directly from the pages of one of Sir Oliver's novels.

Pardon Miss Lemon for mentioning the she even sees shades of herself in Sir Oliver's unflappable literary secretary, Miss Cozzens. Inspector Meredith notes that "the brief glimpse that he had had of her ... suggested to him that here was a woman with no nonsense about her.... On the surface she looked like a shorthand taking machine, and a totally conventional moral entity -- but behind the glasses savage little glints of intelligence were to be detected."

Readers should be not at all surprised at the level of complexity and cleverness they'll find in Death of a Mystery Writer. Robert Barnard names Agatha Christie as one of his favourite mystery writers, and her presence is felt keenly here and in other works. Mr. Barnard wrote an appreciation of Mrs. Christie in 1980 called A Talent to Deceive. It is now on Miss Lemon's to-read pile.