Review: The Murder on the Links

the murder on the links

The Murder on the Links (Hercule Poirot #2), Agatha Christie. New York Harper Collins, 2011 (first published in 1923).

Summary: A man who writes Poirot from the north of France of his life being in danger is found dead by Poirot under circumstances similar to another murder many years earlier that is key to Poirot unraveling the case.

For golfing fans, I hate to disappoint you, but apart from a murder taking place in a grave dug where a bunker for a golf course was to be sited, there is little about golf in this mystery. What you will find here is Agatha Christie at the height of her powers in one of her early Poirots, creating an intricate plot taking us in a succession of turns and suspects before the revelation of the true murderer.

I won’t take you on all the plot turns but will lay out enough to hopefully entice you to read one of Christie’s best. Hercule Poirot is in England with his companion, Arthur Hastings, when he receives a letter from the north of France from millionaire Paul Renaud, speaking of his life in danger, and requesting Poirot’s help. Poirot and Hastings immediately depart, only to arrive with the police on scene, investigating the murder of Monsieur Renaud. Madame Renaud had been found tightly bound by two strangers who questioned Monsieur Renaud and then took him out. His body was found in a newly dug grave stabbed in the back with a letter opener given to Madame Renaud by her son Jack, who had been sent to sail to South America.

Part of the fun in this story is the rivalry between Poirot and Giraud, the Sureté detective who crawls around everywhere but dismisses the piece of led pipe near the body, the dismissal of Jack to South America and the chauffeur, leaving only three female servants and an old gardener, a door left open, a piece of paper that was part of check with the name “Duveen.” Who was the mysterious visitor in Renaud’s study the evening before his death? Why payments of 200,000 francs from him into Madame Daubreuil’s account, a neighbor who frequently visited? Why were their footprints matching the gardener’s boots in one bed, while the other had none?

While Giraud keeps investigating, Poirot, troubled with similarities to a murder involving a Madame Beroldy, goes to Paris. Meanwhile, a young woman, “Cinderella” who Hastings previously met runs into him, hear’s the story of the murder and wants to see the scene. Afterward, the murder weapon goes missing, only to turn up in the back of a second corpse, a tramp dressed in nice clothes that in fact had died long before the weapon was thrust into him.

Then we learn that Jack had actually been in town the night of the murder. Jack was in love with Marthe Daubreuil, Madame Daubreuil’s daughter. We also learn that Jack’s father had changed his will, cutting Jack out because he insisted in his love affair, even though he had a girl he dumped, the twin sister of “Cinderella,” Dulcie Duveen, the woman who had been in Renaud’s study the night he was murdered.

As you can see, there are a whole host of suspects. Giraud fixes on Jack Renaud, who all but admits to the crime. Yet Poirot is not so sure. Not all is as it seems, but this plot has more twists and turns before the denouement, including a period where Hastings, for love, works against Poirot. This is one you want to read closely, paying attention to the clues, following the turns, trying to spot the red herrings. This is great, good fun–Christie at her best!

Review: Elephants Can Remember

elephants can remember

Elephants Can Remember (Hercule Poirot #37), Agatha Christie. New York: Harper Collins, 2011 (first published 1972).

Summary: Poirot and crime writer Ariadne Oliver team up at the request of a mother and young couple, to learn the truth about an unexplained double suicide many years earlier.

Celia Ravenscroft and Desmond Burton-Cox want to marry. Desmond’s mother by adoption, looking for cause to oppose it, seeks out the help of crime writer Ariadne Oliver, who is Celia’s godmother. Celia’s parents died years ago in what authorities determined to be a suicide pact. Mrs. Burton-Cox want to know who killed who, and if there is a streak of mental instability that Celia might inherit. Celia and Desmond wish the truth as well.

Oliver enlists her old friend Poirot, and the two of them go in search of “the elephants,” those who remember crucial facts that might bring to light what truly happened, and incidentally, why Mrs. Burton-Cox is really so bent on discouraging the marriage. Along the way, we learn of Mrs. Ravenscroft’s deranged identical twin sister, who died by falling from the same cliffs where the Ravenscrofts took their lives three weeks later. Poirot wonders about the exceptional number of wigs worn by Mrs Ravenscroft, despite a healthy head of hair. What did French au pair know, who was staying at the time of their deaths? Finally, we wonder about the affectionate dog that inexplicably bit.

Reading the story, I was curious how much of Agatha Christie is written into the character of Ariadne Oliver. It was fun to envision Agatha going about with Poirot crime solving. I have to admit that the solution was fairly apparent before the denouement. What I liked about this story was the diverse set of characters Christie offers us: the somewhat eccentric Ariadne Oliver, the strong-willed Celia, the determined Desmond, the unlikable Mrs. Burton-Cox, and the au pair torn by love and the promise to keep a secret. We also encounter an older Poirot, one who sits and thinks even more. We wonder, as does Ariadne at one point, whether he still has his edge. As always, we discover his edge is to listen, to observe, to wait, and to think, drawing on his insights into human nature, until the pieces fall in place.

I didn’t think this was Christie at her best. She left too many clues, too few red herrings. Yet I found the story a pleasant diversion, with a great mix of characters and good pacing. This was published less than four years before her death. Some have speculated that she was struggling with the onset of some form of dementia when she wrote Elephants Can Remember. Perhaps the title was a valiant attempt to say “I’ve still got what it takes!” She was in her early 80’s when she wrote this–and still capable of writing circles around younger writers!

Review: Cards on the Table

Cards on the Table

Cards on the Table (Hercule Poirot #15), Agatha Christie. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2011 (originally published 1936).

Summary: Mr. Shaitana, who throws great parties, but seems to be feared by many, throws a party for the entertainment of Poirot, with four guests who he claims have gotten away with murder, and ends up murdered himself, but with no clue as to who the murderer was.

Mr. Shaitana was an enticing host of great dinner parties. Yet people feared him. “Mephistophelian” is a word that describes him,  after the elegant demon who deceived Faust. A seemingly chance meeting with Hercule Poirot leads to a boast of knowing murderers who had gotten away with their crimes and what proves an unwise idea of hosting a party at which Poirot, Scotland Yard Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race, and Ariadne Oliver, a crime novelist are invited to join four guests presumably guilty of murder. The four other guests are Dr. Roberts, daring in bridge and perhaps in life, Mrs. Lorrimer, an intelligent and proper widow, Major Despard, an adventurer, and young and seemingly vulnerable Anne Meredith.

After dinner the four guests adjourn to play bridge. The four sleuths play in one room. The four “murderers” play in the other. Shaitana joins them by the fire. At the conclusion of play Shaitana appears asleep, but has been stabbed in the heart with a sharp implement from his collection. No one but the four bridge players, the four who had gotten away with murderer had been in the room. None says they saw anything amiss.

And so begins the sleuthing. Interviews with each of the guests. An investigation to learn if they could have committed a previous murder they would cover up. Battle, shrewd but stolid pursue conventional police methods. Race pursues inquiries on Major Despard. Mrs. Oliver focuses on young Anne and her roommate Rhoda Dawes. Poirot focuses on the bridge scores and what each remembers of the play, and the details of the room. Each has been connected with a murder. Things get more exciting yet with one more murder and another murder attempt. When we think the murderer of Shaitana is arrested, there is one more twist before the real murderer is exposed. In the end, the scores and play at bridge yield the critical clue.

Many consider this among Christie’s best novels. She pokes fun at herself in the character of novelist Ariadne Oliver.

” ‘I can always think of things,’ said Mrs. Oliver happily. ‘What is so tiring is writing them down. I always think I’ve finished, and then when I count up I find I’ve written only thirty thousand words instead of sixty thousand, and so then, I have to throw in another murder and get the heroine kidnapped again. It’s all very boring.’ “

It is enjoyable to see the character and interactions of the sleuths, the subtlety of the clues, and the surprise at the end when we think we have the murderer, caught in the act of attempted murder. This is a great summer read, or for any time one needs an engaging diversion.

Review: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The Murder of Roger AckroydAgatha Christie. New York: HarperCollins, 2002 (originally published 1926).

Summary: Poirot comes out of retirement to solve the murder of Roger Ackroyd, who is killed after learning that the woman he loved, who has taken her life, had poisoned her first husband and was being blackmailed to cover up the fact.

There are some who consider this among the very best of Agatha Christie’s mysteries. It is the only one appearing in the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. I am inclined to agree that it is one of the best I have read, particularly for the unusual surprise at the end.

Mrs. Ferrars has committed suicide. Her husband had died the previous year under somewhat suspicious circumstances. Dr. James Settles is the physician consulted on the case and it turns out that he is with wealthy Roger Ackroyd when Ackroyd, who had fallen in love with Ferrars, receives a suicide note confessing she had poisoned her husband and was being blackmailed by someone she named in the letter who knew the fact. Ackroyd refuses to reveal the contents of the letter. Later that evening Settles receives a call informing him that Ackroyd has been murdered in his study. He goes to the house and discovers it is so, in the neck with a knife from a collection of curios.

Flora Ackroyd, a niece who stands to inherit a tidy fortune, having agreed to marry Roger Ackroyd’s choice of spouse, Ralph Paton, enlists the help of Hercule Poirot, who has retired and lives nearby. Dr. Settles, who saw the crime scene, becomes Poirot’s aid in the investigation and is the narrating voice in the story. Flora is particularly concerned because Ralph has gone missing and is the prime suspect, because of his financial straits. But others in the household are also suspicious. Parker the butler appears to have been listening at the door of Ackroyd’s study during the meeting between Ackroyd and Settles, and then again later in the evening as well. Others seems to be hiding things as well: Flora’s mother Mrs. Ackroyd, Hector Blunt, a friend staying with the family, Geoffrey Raymond, the secretary, Mrs. Russell and Ursula Bourne on the staff. There is a strange American-sounding figure who gets directions from Settles to the house shortly before the murder took place.

Working alongside Inspector Raglan, Poirot with the help of Settles and his sister Caroline seek to get to the truth these different characters are hiding. There is also the puzzle of who it was Ackroyd was speaking with shortly before his death and why one of the chairs in the study was moved out of place.  Eventually there is the traditional “gathering of suspects” at which Poirot reveals the killer. I can say no more because this is where the plot takes a surprising turn.

What I enjoyed was the character of Poirot. One sees why he is one of the most celebrated figures in detective mysteries. He is thorough, thoughtful, relentless in the pursuit of truth, intolerant of deception, and gentle when people confess the truth. He takes truth seriously but himself not at all. He can be both droll, and infinitely sad as he ponders the evil people do. I’ve read or watched other Poirot stories but found his character especially well drawn here.

Likewise, the plot seems to move at just the right pace, unraveling each thread of the mystery until all is prepared for the final revelation of the murder. The perfect book for a summer read, or any time you need a few hours of rich diversion.

 

Review: After the Funeral

After the Funeral
After the Funeral by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a wonderful diversion during a very full schedule of meetings in this past week. Agatha Christie always seems good for that and why I chose her for a break from serious reading during some serious discussions.

Leaving aside the personal stuff, the relatives of deceased estate owner Richard Abernethy are gathered for the reading of his will following his funeral. He had been ill but nevertheless had died rather suddenly in his sleep. Entwhistle, the family lawyer has just announced that the proceeds will be divided in six equal shares among the family when Cora Lansquenet, a daffy niece known for saying what she thinks, pipes up and asks, “But he was murdered, wasn’t he?” The fuss dies down until the next day when Cora is brutally hatcheted to death, in what appears to be a break-in. At this point, Entwhistle’s suspicions are aroused and his informal discussions with family members only deepen the impression that any of them could be involved in this murder, and presumably Richard’s. And so he calls in Poirot, an old friend.

Tension deepens when Mrs. Gilchrist, Cora’s housekeeper and companion, suffers a serious poisoning incident with an arsenic-laced piece of wedding cake. It appears there is a desperate killer set on wiping out anyone who might have a notion of who committed the murder. When Helen Abernethy realizes who is responsible, she is struck on the head and knocked out, just on the point of revealing the truth to Entwhistle.

Poirot deduces the true killer from what she did say and reveals the killer in one of those typical library scenes where the whole family is gathered. Of course, I will leave the fun of discovering the murderer to your reading. Having read some Christie, I would say that it was a bit of a surprise, and yet not a surprise at all. Have fun with that!

I came by this book as a free giveaway as part of World Book Night, which has suspended operations for lack of funding. Even if you have to buy this, I think you will find it a diverting and worthwhile read.

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Review: Five Little Pigs

Five Little Pigs
Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An attractive young women walks into Poirot’s office seeking to hire him for a case. How many mystery or crime novels begin that way? This one has some unexpected twists. Carla Lemarchant believes her mother innocent of murdering her father. The murder took place sixteen years earlier, when Carla was a young girl. Her mother was convicted of poisoning her father with a hemlock derivative, coniine, which her mother had stolen from the home laboratory of a family friend, ostensibly to kill herself because her husband, famous artist Amyas Crale, was having an affair with a young model, one in a series and was planning to divorce her. The mother, Caroline Crale, died in prison shortly after, but before dying had written a letter, to be given her daughter when she reached adulthood, stating her innocence.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie

What makes this more compelling for Poirot is that Carla is engaged but the couple is apprehensive of having a husband poisoner in their background. So Poirot takes the case. His initial investigations turn up two basic facts, the case was open and shut, the poison being in a glass brought by the wife with a cold beer, and the lack of any real defense on her part during the trial apart from the claim that her husband must have committed suicide.

The plot then moves forward with interviews with the five people present at the time of the murder–the five little pigs! This is followed by five written accounts from each of these people, then the denouement, in the room where the poison was compounded. In all this, Poirot is not only looking for the discrepancies in accounts but also to understand the character of Caroline, as well as the others present. In this, he believes, the real answer lies.

From all accounts, it looks as if the wife is guilty, but Poirot thinks otherwise and the fun is seeing how he reaches that conclusion and exposes the real killer!

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