Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Murders of Richard III

My dear readers: Have you ever wondered whether Richard III really did murder those innocent babes in the Tower to secure his position on the English throne?

Miss Lemon must tell you that she likes to ponder that tricky bit of history every now again. So it was with great pleasure that she picked up The Murders of Richard III (1974), by Elizabeth Peters, wherein the main characters seek to suss out the truth behind the much-maligned reign of dark King Richard.

Their parlour-games of re-enactment, however, quickly turn treacherous as one by one the various characters that were supposed victims of Richard III fall into mischief and even worse.

Will Jacqueline Kirby, Ms. Peters' spirited librarian-cum-sleuth who sets on the case with her prodigious handbag and formidable store of knowledge sort out the tangled histories and the mystery of the Ricardian trickster in time to stop a murderer?

Miss Lemon leaves it to her readers to find out.

She will say, though, that those who like medieval history are certain to like this book. Ditto for admirers of Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, which the book gently spoofs. For if there was ever a figure from history who has swirling about him more mystery than Richard III, Miss Lemon would like to meet him.

Elizabeth Peters is one of the nom de plumes for Barbara Mertz, a respected historian and author of nearly 70 books, including works of nonfiction. Two of these are now considered classic works of popular history: Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs and Red Land, Black Land. She earned her Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Chicago in 1952. Mystery Writers of America awarded her the MWA Grandmaster in 1998.

When it comes to the past, Ms. Peters knows whereof she speaks.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Six Feet Under

Yes, my dear readers, you all know it by now. Miss Lemon loves to grouse about Inspector Thanet. Reading Six Feet Under (1982), by Dorothy Simpson, has done little to change that proclivity.

Stuffy and self-satisfied, the Inspector could rival M. Poirot, were it only that he had a sense of humour.

But the poor man in trying.

Now that his partner, DC Mike Lineham, is about to enter the matrimonial state (the only state, by the way, that Luke Thanet thinks fit to live in, so it's high time), he turns his moral apprehensions homeward. 

And my, does Inspector Thanet find something to fret about: His wife Joan is thinking of ... how could she? ... joining the workforce. Life, Thanet predicts, will never be as sweet, harmonious, or comfortable as it is with Joan waiting for him quietly at home.

While he gnashes his teeth over this familial conundrum, a more serious domestic drama unfolds in the bucolic village of Nettleton. Carrie Birch, an introverted spinster devoted to the care of her invalid mother, is found murdered.

Who would want to harm a woman so drab and selfless as Carrie?

As Thanet and Lineham go digging, they turn up plenty of dirt, as it were, on Carrie and the few villagers she lived among.

Miss Lemon doesn't feel as though she's giving much away if she says that Thanet is wise and decent enough to see from the business in Nettleton that a stranglehold put on a loved one is no way to ensure that love is returned.

As Miss Lemon said, he is trying. Despite Inspector Thanet's irritating ways, this is a smartly plotted and psychologically insightful mystery.  Well worth the read.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Happy Birthday, Agatha Christie

The happy day is upon us once again: today marks the 120th anniversary of the birth of Agatha Clarissa Miller, in Torquay, England. As we all know now -- but couldn't possibly have foreseen then -- she grew up to become the bestselling and perhaps most ingenious mystery writer of all time.

With the day in mind, Miss Lemon thought it apt to give a mention to the few of Dame Agatha's many publications (eighty detective novels, short-story collections and plays; eight novels under the nom de plume, Mary Westmacott; and two memoirs in all) that she most frequently ranked among her favourites.

By the order in which Sir Max lists them in Mallowan's Memoirs, they are:
  1. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926). This is also one of Miss Lemon's all-time favourites. So clever is the plotting, so intricately masked is the murderer that critics cried foul when this masterwork first appeared. But no violation of the conventions of mystery has ever been proved. Sour grapes, perhaps?
  2. The Pale Horse (1961). Agatha Christie prided herself on her knowledge of poisons -- an erudition she gained while working in the dispensary of Torquay Hospital during the first World War. The plot of this novel shows her pharmaceutical training to its best advantage.
  3. The Moving Finger (1943). Smart characterization, snappy dialogue, and a plot that zips right along make this book the perfect illustration of all that is good about Agatha Christie. This work also employs Miss Lemon's favourite but most disturbing plot device: the anonymous letter.
  4. Endless Night (1967). Set in a fictional rendering of Max and Agatha's beloved Greenway, both cite this work as one of their favourites for its strong psychological exploration and classic struggle between good and evil.
With these books in mind, Miss Lemon bids you a very happy Dame Agatha Day!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mallowan's Memoirs

As we near the 120th anniversary of Agatha Christie's birth (15 September 1890, for those who need reminding), Miss Lemon thought, what better way to celebrate the double-diamond jubilee than with a view of the grande dame of mystery through the eyes of archaeologist and Asiatic scholar, Max Mallowan?

And what better place to get that view than from Mallowan's Memoirs: The Autobiography of Max Mallowan (1977). The book is excellent for its vivid recollections of the digs at Ur, Nineveh, and Chagar Bazar, among others; its plates and illustrations of people, excavation sites and artifacts; and of course its observations on life with Dame Agatha. He was her husband, after all.

Fourteen years younger than Agatha, Sir Max Edgar Lucien Mallowan  (he was knighted in 1968) was a classmate of Evelyn Waugh at Lancing and went on to earn a B.A. in classics at Oxford. After graduation, he foundered a bit until being invited to join Leonard Wooley as an apprentice at Ur, an ancient city, now located partway between Baghdad and the head of the Persian Gulf.   

The odyssey at Ur is where Sir Max's absorbing tale begins. He describes the notoriously difficult nature of the Wooleys -- both of Leonard and even more so, of Katherine, who is gently portrayed in Agatha's Murder in Mesopotamia (1936). But it was Katherine's imperious nature that brought Max and Agatha together. She ordered Max to escort Agatha, who was on her second excursion to the Middle East, on a round-trip tour of Baghdad. He found the task -- and the mystery writer -- so agreeable that Max Mallowan and Agatha Christie were married on 11 September 1930.

The two -- Max no great mystery fan and Agatha no great archaeologist -- in the end made an interesting pair. And the marriage -- despite rumours of Max's affair with Barbara Parker, whom he married after Agatha's death -- was a happy one. Indeed, Mallowan's Memoirs is dedicated to Rosalind, Agatha's only child, 'with love.'

What Miss Lemon finds so intriguing about reading Mallowan's Memoirs is how his perspective aligns with that found in Agatha's varied works. In fact, they complement each other quite smartly. To have read Agatha's autobiography or Come Tell Me How You Live (1946) or any of her works set in the Middle East is to get a special sense of insight when reading Max's account.

Sir Max himself gives a charming perspective on Agatha's novels and craft, though he is careful to stop short of offering literary criticism. The critic of detective fiction, he wryly observes, 'must be either a knave or a fool,' for the elegance of the narrative lies in the arc from crime to solution. One cannot discuss mysteries intelligently, he writes, without discussing their endings.

Miss Lemon will bear that in mind.

In the meantime, she will say that this post is part of a series, the Agatha Christie Blog Tour, intended to commemorate her life and work. If you like Agatha Christie and her milieu, stop by and have a look round.