During my recent malaise, I happened on Joan Acocella’s excellent story in the August 16th edition of The New Yorker, “Queen of Crime,” about how Agatha Christie created the modern murder mystery. It reminded me how I went straight from Nancy Drew and The Dana Girls to Christie’s whodunits and never looked back. She ushered me into the so-called golden age of detective fiction and the works of Sayers, Marsh, Tey, Allingham; nourished the Anglophile in me; and gave me an enduring affection for her tea-cozy, sherry-sipping, body-in-the-library puzzles. (I must say I was truly disappointed when I first tasted sherry; what sounded delicious was sweetly vile.)
Acocella also reminded me of my frustration at trying to figure out those puzzles, not only because of Christie’s use of red herrings and double bluffs but also because she withheld vital information revealed only at the end, usually by the detective who had gathered all the suspects together. And, as Acocella writes, ”Christie’s novels crawl with imposters. Letty is not really Letty; she’s Lotty, the sister of Letty. And Hattie isn’t Hattie. She’s a piece of trash from Trieste, who, with her husband, Sir George, killed Hattie (who was also married to him) and assumed her identity.”
I remembered this most recently while watching a rerun of PBS’s Mystery! and one of the latest reincarnations of Miss Marple (a very good Julia McKenzie). I almost immediately spotted the imposter and identified the culprit, but that may be because I remembered reading the book years ago.
I decided to see if rereading a Christie would arouse me from my languid lupus stupor. Only I wanted one where I couldn’t remember the ending. So I went for her very famous And Then There Were None because while I knew the conceit — 10 people on an island bumped off one-by-one — I’d forgotten the details, and it’s been ages since I’ve seen the movie.
Well, it’s still a corker! Clever, suspenseful, and carefully plotted with stereotypical Christie characters — the spinster, the old military gentleman, the young woman, the too-handsome young man, etc.) I had forgotten how funny she could be; also how racist and anti-Semitic (Acocella noted this as well). I also found quite lovely foreshadowing: “There was something magical about an island — the mere word suggested fantasy. You lost touch with the world — an island was a world of its own. A world, perhaps from which you might never return.”
After finishing Christie in one evening, I remembered that after reading The Franchise Affair earlier this summer, I was going to reread more Josephine Tey. Trying to decide which one I remembered the least about, I came upon the next best thing to a new Tey mystery — Nicola Upson’s first two entries in a series set in 1930s Britain with Josephine Tey as the sleuth.
I devoured both An Expert in Murder and Angel with Two Faces. They’re a well-written, atmospheric mix of fact and fiction — the real Tey was one of the pseudonyms of the very private Elizabeth Mackintosh (1890-1952), who also wrote popular plays as Gordon Daviot. Both books use the theater world as backdrop (the West End in 1934, Cornwall in 1935), and I’m eagerly awaiting a third installment. But right now, I seem to have worked up quite a thirst. I’m positively longing, dear, for a nice cup of tea.
Open Book: I couldn’t find a copy of And Then There Were None in my paperback Christie collection, so I down-loaded an e-book version to my nook. Its cover is not the one pictured here because the title on the internet image is And Then There Where None (!). I bought the trade paperback copies of Nicola Upson’s An Expert in Murder and Angel with Two Faces (Harper) because I want to share them with my mother.