Review: Sparkling Cyanide

Sparkling Cyanide

Sparkling Cyanide, Agatha Christie. New York: Harper Collins, 2002 (first published 1944).

Summary: Six table guests meet a year after the apparent suicide death of Rosemary Barton, and when her husband dies by the same means, it is apparent there is a murderer in their midst.

“Six people were thinking of Rosemary Barton who had died nearly a year ago…”

So begins the mystery. The six will be gathered at the same table at the Luxembourg where nearly a year ago Rosemary Barton, recently ill from the flu and possibly depressed, died of cyanide in her champagne, apparently from her own hand, from the evidence found in her purse.

The six are introduced one by one.

Iris Marle is the younger sister of Rosemary. The poor younger sister, since Rosemary had received a great inheritance from her Uncle Paul, which Iris would only receive if Rosemary died childless.

Ruth Lessing is the super-efficient secretary of Rosemary’s husband George, who secretly harbors an unreciprocated love for him, and hatred for Rosemary. He relies on her to handle tough situations in work and personal life, including dispatching the devious Victor Drake, whose singular accomplishment is wheedling money from his mother Lucilla, Iris’s aunt and chaperone. She apparently succeeds, but not before Victor insinuates himself into her thoughts and arouses her hatred for Rosemary.

Anthony Browne is an American of whom little is known. He tries and strikes out in having an affair with Rosemary, and then surreptitiously wins the heart of Iris who he wants to secret away to marry, flouting her guardian, George Barton.

Stephen Farraday is an ambitious young Member of Parliament who has married into the powerful Kidderminster clan through Sandra, the shyest, but also perhaps the most politically savvy or even ruthless of the sisters. Stephen, despite his love for and appreciation of his partner, has an affair with Rosemary, realizes there is little of substance to her, and much to his wife, and painfully breaks it off, against the wishes of Rosemary who has threatened to make the affair public.

Sandra Farraday genuinely loves her husband, perhaps more than he does her, at first. He thinks she doesn’t know about the affair, but in fact she does, and despises Rosemary, reconciles with Stephen and makes common cause with him.

Finally there is George Barton. He believes the account of Rosemary’s suicide until he receives letters intimating it was murder, which leads him to move close to the Farradays, and to devise a dinner at the same table of the same restaurant nearly a year later, to expose the murderer. They arrive to find an extra place, supposedly for his friend, Colonel Race, an ex-Army Colonel and MI-5 agent who tried to warn him off this dangerous game. The empty place is set with a spray of rosemary.

After the uneasy party returns from dancing, George proposes a toast to Rosemary, and promptly collapses, also poisoned by cyanide in his champagne. It is clear this is no suicide, and that Rosemary’s death was not either. There is a murderer in their midst. But there are troubling questions. Who sent the letters? And who poisoned the champagne, when none of those at the table had an opportunity. These are the questions that stymie Race, and Chief Inspector Kemp, until an unlikely ally helps them figure it out, and thwarts a third murder in the nick of time.

The story is developed with economy and it is intriguing to see how many motives Christie contrives to make each of the parties a plausible suspect. Not unlike other Christies, it pays to attend to details, and to question your assumptions. And enjoy!

Review: In The Electric Mist With Confederate Dead

electric mist

In the Electric Mist With Confederate DeadJames Lee Burke. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011 (my Avon edition, 1994).

Summary: Investigation of multiple rapes and murders, and a murder from 1957 confront Robicheaux with dark figures from his past, and pose a threat to all he holds dear.

If Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote crime fiction about rural Louisiana, he might have produced this book. I didn’t expect to encounter magical realism in this, the sixth of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux stories. It was strange, but for me it worked better than some of the Marquez I have read. The magical realism part has to do with dreams or waking visions of the Confederate dead (hence the title), appearing first to an oft-drunk movie actor, Elrod Sykes, and then to Robicheaux, who is now stone-cold sober. Robicheaux even has conversations with General John Bell Hood, who seems to be his version of Obi-Wan Kenobi, speaking in metaphors and riddles that offer clues and sometimes warnings.

The story begins with a gruesome kidnapping-rape-murder of a young woman. While investigating the murder, Robicheaux pulls over a drunken Elrod Sykes, who subsequently proceeds to tell him a story of seeing Confederate soldiers in the Atchafalaya swamp where he is being filmed by a movie company that has more or less taken over Robicheaux’s New Iberia (in more ways than one). He also tells him of finding a dead body in chains. It turns out this is no drunken illusion. The body is near a location where Robicheaux had witnessed a murder of a black prisoner in chains — in 1957 — reported but dismissed by the authorities.

He’s joined in the investigation by an F.B.I investigator, Rosie Gomez, partly because of the kidnapping element (and evidence of more murders), but also because of the presence of Julie “Baby Feet” Balboni, an investor in the film, who has returned from the New Orleans underworld to New Iberia, where his family once controlled organized crime. He and Robicheaux were also once classmates, and baseball team mates. He has a group of “associates” including his consigliere, Chollo, the movie security guy, Murphy Doucet, a former cop, and Twinky LeMoyne, Doucet’s partner.

In an unlikely turn of events, Sykes ends up living with Robicheaux after his girlfriend, Kelly is shot. He quickly becomes a favorite with Bootsie, Dave’s wife, and his daughter Alafair, and manages to discover a new-found sobriety. Robicheaux, however, as he investigates Balboni and his connections falls out of favor with the townsfolk, and then is set up taking the fall for a murder of an unarmed prostitute. Evidence exonerates him but then another murder of an old detective friend comes closer to home. Throughout, he continues to see Hood and his soldiers at key turning points. The closer he gets to the killer he seeks, and the solution to the 1957 murder he witnessed, the closer danger comes to him until an exciting conclusion.

One of the qualities of Burke’s work is his descriptive power to create an atmosphere, in which you feel the humidity, smell the trees, the ozone of the lightning, the fetid smells of the swamps. I’ve never been to that part of the country but I felt like I was there as I read. Robicheaux is a fascinating character–a Vietnam vet with troubled memories, a reformed alcoholic, someone who carries troubled memories and lives in an uneasy truce with them, who has a strong sense of rectitude, and yet will bend the rules of evidence and interrogation in pursuit of his ends.

This was my first Robicheaux novel, picked because of a recommendation of a bookseller, and the intriguing title as much as anything. Burke’s writing, and Robicheaux’s character were good enough that I am ready to come back for more.

Review: The Law and the Lady

The Law and the Lady

The Law and the LadyWilkie Collins (edited with an Introduction and Notes by Jenny Bourne Taylor). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Summary: Valeria Woodville discovers her new husband has a past that is under the cloud of a “not proven” murder accusation, and pursues an investigation to fully vindicate his innocence.

Wilkie Collins is one of the early writers of detective fiction, most famous for his The Woman in White and The Moonstone, two works that established his reputation among the reading public of his time who eagerly awaited the serialized releases of each of his stories. The Law and the Lady is a later work (1875) with probably the first female sleuth in the genre.

Valeria Woodville’s marriage to Eustace Woodville begins with an ill omen when she signs the wedding register with her married rather than maiden name. On her honeymoon she discovers the Eustace’s real surname was Macallan after a chance encounter with her mother-in-law, who had disapproved of the marriage. Valeria recognized her from a photograph she had found among her husband’s effects. She is discouraged by her husband from inquiring further into the circumstances that led to their marriage under an assumed name.

Instead she persists, returns to London, and tracks down Major Fitz-David, a ladies’ man who, while refusing to divulge her husband’s secret, permits her to discover it in his study. She finds a picture of her husband with another woman, Sarah Macallan, and after further searching finds a book with a narrative of the trial of Eustace Macallan for the murder of Sarah by arsenic poisoning. The trial ended with neither a “guilty” nor a “not guilty” verdict but a third allowed in Scottish law, “not proven.” Such a verdict left Eustace under a cloud of suspicion, a permanent blot upon his reputation.

Valeria determines to remove that blot, even though Eustace, and her old family friend, Benjamin, urge her to leave it alone. When she refuses, Eustace leaves her to fight in a distant war in Spain, where he is later seriously wounded. Assisted by Benjamin, and Eustace’s attorney, Mr. Playmore, who is eventually won over to her cause, she pursues an investigation to uncover the real murderer. Much of the inquiry centers around Misserimus Dexter, a friend of Eustace born without legs, an eccentric bordering on madness, whose testimony on behalf of Eustace may have saved him from a guilty verdict, and suggested suspicion of a female guest. In the course of the novel, Dexter descends into insanity, but one of his last, raving statements, taken down by Benjamin, leads Mr. Playmore to the discovery of the truth.

One of the distinctive features of the novel is that it is written as the first person narrative of Valeria. Combined with the fact that she is one of the first female detectives, the novel gives us one of the more memorable character portrayals in detective fiction that paved the way for other women detectives. Valeria’s determination to read the trial accounts, to familiarize herself with the law, and to mount an investigation (helped by the fact that she was a woman of independent means), in defiance of all the urgings that she content herself in her husband’s love, makes her a strong female character pushing the boundaries of Victorian role expectations.

At the same time, most critics do not consider this among Collins’ best, and I would have to agree. Given Valeria’s strength of character, at least this reader thought that Eustace wasn’t worthy of her, and I wondered what she saw in him. But, the heart has its reasons! I wondered why Eustace, if innocent, did not himself pursue the efforts Valeria pursued to find his former wife’s murderer but acquiesced in the “not proven” verdict.  He chose instead to marry under an assumed name, and false pretenses. Even his mother, also a strong character, considers this unworthy of him. Also, there is a studied avoidance of the one possibility that turned out to be the truth, one that occurred to me early in the narrative. I can even think of some red herrings Collins might have used to put the reader off the track.

What redeemed it for me was the strong character of Valeria, who is the good wife in the best sense, and yet refuses to be “the good wife.” Her persistence despite setbacks and apparent dead ends, and the bizarre character of Dexter and his household, her ability both to take counsel and make up and assert her own mind (even while expressing her inner misgivings in the narrative) offers us not merely a female detective but a woman of refreshing and unusual strength who must have appealed to Collins’ female readers. Her strength combined with her loyalty suggests possibilities for a richer, yet unconventional, marriage with Eustace, possibilities it appears he only begins to grasp in his convalescence from his wounds. How interesting it would have been if Collins had made Valeria into a recurring character!

Review: The Gods of Gotham

Gods of Gotham

The Gods of Gotham, Lindsay Faye. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012.

Summary: The first in the author’s Timothy Wilde series, in which Wilde, a newly installed New York Policeman in 1845, encounters a blood-covered girl, whose story leads to the discovery of twenty dead children and an assignment to find the killer before anti-Irish rage consumes the city.

Timothy Wilde and his older brother Val were orphaned when their parents died in a fire. The brothers survived by their wits, especially Val’s, who nevertheless became a New York City fireman, while dousing his pain in opiates. Timothy struggled with the life Val had chosen, and pursued a different path, tending bar on the lower end of Manhatten.

Until the fire. Until the bar was destroyed, he was burned in an explosion, and rescued by his brother. The fortune he’d accumulated was lost in the fire–a fortune with which he hoped to marry Mercy Underhill, a Protestant minister’s daughter who he had admired since childhood for both her looks and her charitable work among New York’s poor.

Val, ensconced in politics, gets both himself and Timothy a job on the newly formed New York City Police Department, the “copper stars” or “coppers.” Maintaining order in the city has become much more difficult with a mass influx of Irish immigrants driven to seek a new life by the Irish Potato Famine. Timothy is not crazy about the work, particularly after he arrests a poor woman not in her right mind who had killed her infant son and takes her to the Tombs, the New York City jail.

Returning home to his apartment above Mrs. Boehme’s bakery one night, a young girl covered in blood collides with him at his door. Gradually, he gets the story out of her, not only of little Liam’s gruesome death by the dark hooded man at Silkie Marsh’s brothel, but the other children who died similarly and were buried in a mass grave on the north edge of town. Subsequent investigation reveals that the girl, Bird Daly, is telling the truth for once, each child being cut open brutally in the shape of a cross. Chief Matsell tasks Wilde with finding the murderer before the news breaks and anti-Irish sentiment reaches a flash point.

The story takes many twists and turns from there as several letters are received, including one to the New York papers, and one to Dr. Palsgrave, the some-time coroner who determined the cause of the deaths. There is another murder, a child hung on the door of the Catholic Church, seemingly incriminating Fr. Sheehy. Timothy is warned off the investigation, and faces death several times as well as riots as feelings reach a boiling point. His relation with his brother is strained, as he thinks the brother has taken away Bird Daly, or may even be the murderer.

The novel reveals a seamy side of New York involving brothels, child prostitution and Protestant-Catholic hatreds and racial prejudice. We witness a police department that is an organ of party patronage. Yet in the end, Wilde solves the crime with the help of some butcher paper on which he works out all the evidence until he finally realizes where it points. For his troubles, Chief Matsell assigns him to solve crimes rather than prevent them. And so a new series is born!

Much of the dialogue is in “flash,” a secret language that derived from the British criminal underground and used among the working classes of the day. Chief Matsell is a historical figure and actually compiled a lexicon of the language, which he is seen doing during the story. The author provides an abbreviated glossary at the beginning with a number of terms.

Tensions between brothers, a possible serial killer of child prostitutes, the grit and bustle of mid-nineteenth century New York, and characters who are not always what they seem all make for a gripping read. I’m glad for the Barnes and Noble bookseller who recommended this book. Don’t be surprised if you see subsequent numbers of this series (now up to three) reviewed here.

Review: The Haunted Bookshop

The Haunted Bookshop

The Haunted BookshopChristopher Morley. New York: Mysterious Press/Open Road Media, 2015 (first published 1919).

Summary: A mystery in a bookshop, involving a book that keeps disappearing, a wealthy businessman’s daughter, a young advertising salesman, a gregarious bookseller, and a German pharmacist.

What could be better for a bibliophile than a mystery in a bookshop? This classic by Christopher Morley begins with a young advertising salesman, Aubrey Gilbert, trying to sell advertising to the eccentric and voluble New York bookseller, Roger Mifflin, proprietor of Parnassus at Home a.k.a The Haunted Bookshop. In an explanation posted in the store, it is explained that “THIS SHOP IS HAUNTED by the ghosts of all great literature.” Gilbert fails to sell advertising, but stays for dinner, listening to Mifflin share the first of several discourses on the mystique of books and bookselling that run through the book. Here is a small part:

“My business, you see, is different from most. I only deal in second-hand books; I only buy books that I consider have some honest reason for existence. In so far as human judgment can discern, I try to keep trash out of my shelves. A doctor doesn’t traffic in quack remedies. I don’t traffic in bogus books.”

The bookshop seems to be haunted by more than ghosts of great literature. A book requested by a bearded customer written by Thomas Carlyle on Oliver Cromwell is missing. Throughout the story, the book, a favorite of Woodrow Wilson, will reappear and disappear several times in the course of the story. When Gilbert returns with a lost and found ad for the book placed, not by Mifflin, but by a chef at a nearby hotel, a chef Gilbert had run into, holding the book he had advertised as lost, the mystery deepens as they puzzle over what could be going on. While mystery is deepening, love is blossoming. Mifflin has agreed to allow young Titania Chapman, the daughter of a wealthy businessman with whom Gilbert has an account, to get experience working in the shop, at the request of her father. The moment Gilbert meets her he is smitten.

He is also caught up with the puzzle of the missing book, which only deepens when he finds the cover, minus the book, sandwiched in some books in Weintraub’s drugstore, Weintraub being the bearded gentleman who had called that first night when Gilbert and Mifflin met. Before he can make it home, he is nearly thrown off a bridge into the river, suffering a blow to his head before onlookers come to his rescue. Worried about Titania, he takes a room opposite the bookshop. When he sees Weintraub go into the store after hours, using a key of his own, he assumes that Mifflin is in on the plot, perhaps to kidnap young Titania for ransom, or worse, the book being a way of communicating.

The real truth is far more sinister. Until Gilbert and Mifflin tussle on a Philadelphia street, Mifflin is blissfully unaware of what is swirling about him, lost in the wonders of books, and Gilbert woefully mistaken. Back in New York, Weintraub has left a suitcase of books with Titania for a caller. Both suspect that they were lured to Philadelphia to set up something far more serious and that the suitcase is dangerous. Will they get back in time? And what is in the suitcase? And how does it all relate to the mysteriously disappearing volume of Carlyle?

This was a delightful good time, with diverting soliloquies by Mifflin on books and scenes of domestic bliss with his wife and little dog Bock. One of the most amusing chapters was the Corn Cob Club, a gathering of booksellers discussing the trade. In this instance they debate whether booksellers have an obligation to steer customers to quality works, or simply sell what they want. As you might guess, Mifflin was in the former group. In another soliloquy, he declaims:

“You see what I’m driving at. I want to give people an entirely new idea about bookshops. The grain of glory that I hope will cure both my fever and my lethargicness is my conception of the bookstore as a power-house, a radiating place for truth and beauty. I insist books are not absolutely dead things: they are as lively as those fabulous dragons’ teeth, and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.”

He dreams of stocking a fleet of traveling Parnassus stores that will scatter through the country. Although Mifflin appears to be a bookstore version of Don Quixote with dreams of grandeur, how many of us have felt some of the same things as we prowled the aisle of a wonderful old bookstore? Yet he bests younger Gilbert, and awakens to the real world dangers facing young Titania. But will he make it in time?

For those familiar with the real world of books, you may know of author Ann Patchett’s Parnassus Books in Nashville. As far as I can tell, Morley’s story was not the inspiration for the store’s name. Rather, as best as I can tell, they go back to a common source, the significance of Mount Parnassus in mythology as the home of the muses, or in the words of the real Parnassus Books, “In Greek mythology, Mount Parnassus was the home of literature, learning, and music. We are Nashville’s Parnassus, providing a refuge for Nashvillians of all ages who share in our love of the written word.” It seems that Parnassus at Home was Roger Mifflin’s (and Christopher Morley’s) realization of the same dream.

Review: Have His Carcase

sayers

Have His CarcaseDorothy L. Sayers. New York: Harper, 2012 (originally published 1932).

Summary: While on a walking tour of the seacoast around Devon, Harriet Vane finds a man whose throat has been slit recently on some rocks. Lord Peter Wimsey eventually joins her and they find clues aplenty and possible suspects, yet none appears to have done it.

After being found innocent of poisoning a former love interest, with the help of Lord Peter Wimsey, Harriet Vane embarks on a walking tour of the Devon seacoast. This particular day finds her on the road from Lesston Hoe to Wilvercombe, a seaside resort favored by elderly women. She detours to the beach for a snatch of reading and some lunch and dozes off. She wakens to a cry shortly after 2 pm. On waking she explores the beach further and spots something that looks like a man sleeping on a flat rock by the shore. As she approaches, she finds that it is a man, but he is not sleeping, but dead, of a slit throat with a razor lying at the base of the rock. The tide is rising, she is several miles distant from the nearest town, and the rock and body will soon be submerged. She carefully examines the body, finding the blood liquid and not clotted, pointing to a recent murder. Perhaps the cry she thought was a bird was this man’s last cry. She takes a number of pictures and collects the razor and sets off to find help and report the murder.

After numerous detours, she makes it to Wilvercombe, reports the dead body, and as a shrewd writer building a reputation, leaks the story to the press. Because of this, Lord Peter Wimsey learns of her whereabouts, and comes to help explore what the authorities believe a suicide of a Russian emigre’, Paul Alexis.  Both Vane and Wimsey think otherwise and come across a number of clues that raise questions. Why did he take his life when he was engaged to a rich widow? Why did he by a two way ticket to the town nearest the rock where he was found, and why did he go there? Who was the mysterious Mr. Martin camping near the beach? What about Mr. Bright, the barber who had “provided” the razor that slit Alexis throat? Who was he really? Why was there a ring recently placed in the rock where Alexis died? Why did Alexis convert his savings to gold sovereigns, found in a waist belt on his dead body? How did the horse in the meadow near where Martin camped lose its shoe? Who was the mysterious woman, ‘Feodora,’ in the photo found on Alexis body? What was the role of the rich widow’s son, a struggling landholder, in all of this, despite his alibi? What was the content and significance of the letter in cipher found in Alexis’ pocket?

Each chapter adds new evidence yet seems to bring Wimsey, Vane, and the authorities no closer to a solution. Suicide, if not the best explanation seems the most convenient. Or perhaps Mrs. Weldon’s explanation that he was knocked off by some “mysterious Bolsheviks” is not so incredible after all. None of the other suspects could possibly have been at the rock at the time of the murder.

Nor does all their sleuthing bring them any closer together, despite Wimsey’s repeated “proposals”, which seemed an annoying distraction not only to Vane, but also this reader. Nevertheless, it is great good fun to see these two amateur detectives piecing together the puzzle of this mystery. And one can always hope for the future.

Along the way, we perhaps get a bit of social commentary as well. The women entertained by gigolos at the resorts make us reckon with the sadness of wealth without people to share it or a purpose to live for other than self-indulgence. One readily understands the eagerness of both Vane and Wimsey to clear out when it is all over.

Take this one to the beach or into a comfy hammock and enjoy!

 

Review: The Affair at the Bungalow

The Affair at the Bungalow

The Affair at the Bungalow, Agatha Christie. New York: Witness Impulse, 2013 (originally published in the anthology Thirteen Problems in 1932).

Summary: Actress Jane Helier tells a story of a mysterious burglary at a bungalow in the town where she is acting in a play, involving a woman impersonating her and an unfortunate young playwright. Miss Marple, professing to be baffled, privately hints at a different story.

Most readers are familiar with Agatha Christie’s full-length mysteries. This is a delightful short story originally part of an anthology titled Thirteen Problems first published in 1932, and now available in e-book form as a stand-alone short story.

Jane Helier, an actress, is with a party of friends including Miss Marple, and turns the conversation to a mysterious event that happened to a “friend” of hers, who is quickly found out to be Jane herself. She was in a town by a river (“Riverbury”) as part of a play company when called upon by the police to confront a young man arrested for burglary. The story gets more interesting when the young man, a playwright, claims he was summoned to a bungalow, the site of the burglary, by Miss Helier. Of course, when he sees Miss Helier, he realizes the other woman was not her. He had called at the bungalow, was introduced by the maid to “Miss Helier,” had a drink, and woke by the side of the road, only to be arrested for burglary. It seems that a case of jewels owned by the mistress of a wealthy city man has been stolen while the house was empty. The mistress was an actress, herself married.

By then it is obvious that the young playwright, Leslie Faulkener, was innocent of the crime. But who stole the jewels? The actress, the maid? The party weights all the angles of the story, and at the end, even Miss Marple professes to be mystified as to the solution, and their ire is further aroused when Jane Helier herself offers no resolution.

As the party is breaking up Miss Marple whispers in Jane’s ear, leaving her startled. Did Miss Marple know more than she let on, that not all was as it seemed? And what did she mean when she said, “What I do realize is that women must stick together–one should, in an emergency, stand by one’s own sex. I think that’s the moral of the story Miss Helier has told us”? What did Miss Marple whisper in her ear?

The one question, which mystifies Miss Helier herself, also mystified me and that is how did Miss Marple know? The resolution of the mystery hinges on information Miss Helier had not told anyone, including Miss Marple, introducing new characters not known to us. How did she know? Was it the vagueness at points in the story? The fact that Miss Helier herself does not know the ending?

In this case, one has only to read twenty-one pages to discover what is going on. But the story demonstrates Christie’s art–to draw one into a crime puzzle–in this case one without a murder, and finish it with a surprise

 

Review: And Then There Were None

and-then-there-were-none

And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie. New York: Harper Collins, 2011 (first published 1939).

Summary: Ten strangers are invited to an island by a mysterious U.N. Owen, accused by murder, and one by one are murdered following a rhyme found in each of their rooms, Ten Little Soldier Boys.

This is an unusual work by Christie. No Poirot or Miss Marple. One of the most difficult mysteries for Christie to write. A book that went under several other titles before its current one — Ten Little Indians, Ten Little N****** (the “N” word, it always was published under the current title in the U.S. because of the racial offensiveness of the other titles).

Ten people unknown to each other are invited to an island getaway on Soldier Island by a mysterious U. N. Owen, who is absent from the proceedings but has provided comfortable accommodations and good food.

In each room, there was a children’s poem, “Ten Little Soldier Boys”:

Ten little Soldier Boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.

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

Eight little Soldier Boys travelling in Devon;
One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.

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

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

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

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

Three little Soldier Boys walking in the zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.

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

One little Soldier Boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.

A dinner is laid out for them on a table with ten little crystal soldiers down the middle. After dinner, they suddenly hear a voice which proceeds to charge each of the guests with murders of the sort that would never come to trial–a death after a medical operation, a child drowning, and so forth. The voice was from a recording that Rogers, the butler had been instructed to play after dinner. All present deny the charges. Then Marston, the reckless young man who had killed two children driving, chokes on his drink and falls dead. It was later determined he died of cyanide poisoning.

He is followed the next morning by cook/housekeeper Mrs. Rogers, who does not waken from her sleep, dying of a chloral hydrate overdose. Later that day, General John Gordon Macarthur, who had sent an underling, who had had an affair with his wife, to his death in battle, is bludgeoned to death sitting on the shore.

The deaths are following the nursery rhyme. A search of the island is made and it is determined no one is there but the guests themselves–and they are stranded because the boat from the mainland failed to show up. The awful reality sets in — the murderer is in their midst!

The murders continue, and when someone finally comes from the mainland, all ten guests are found dead, with the mysterious circumstance that one, who they determine was the last to die (as in the rhyme), was found hung, but the chair that the person had stood upon and kicked away had mysteriously been put in its place!

Because the murders take so long to narrate, for the Scotland Yard inspectors to unravel it would have made for a lengthy novel. Christie resolves that by resorting to an unusual plot device, a confession in a bottle, thrown out to sea, that just happens to be recovered by a fishing trawler.

An ingenious plot indeed and I can see how it would have been difficult to figure out how they would all end up dead without an outside “murderer.” More chilling yet when the lives of all depend on figuring out who the murderer is among them–a most cunning murderer indeed, who has tracked down their stories and arranges their murders to fit the rhyme.

Many consider this Christie’s best work. It was adapted for both stage and screen. I did wonder why she narrates the murders serially only to resolve this for the authorities with a message in a bottle. Why not let the authorities unravel it and figure out who was the killer. In the end I concluded that this would be a much duller way to tell the story, and that the message from the killer was the best way to help us understand the mind and motive of the murderer. I think Christie got this one very right!

Review: Hidden But Now Revealed

hidden-but-now-revealed

Hidden But Now RevealedG. K. Beale and Benjamin L. Gladd. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: A study of the word mystery in scripture, particularly considering its use in the Old Testament book of Daniel, and how nearly all New Testament usages connect back to this book, and show the once hidden but now revealed realities surrounding the person of Christ, his kingdom, and the inclusion of the Gentiles.

“Mystery” means quite a number of different things, and often, when we read passages in the Bible that refer in some way to mystery, we read those into the text. In other instances, it is the practice to read into the New Testament usage of mystery the uses of this term in the pagan religions of surrounding cultures.

Beale and Gladd in this book understand mystery as something that was once hidden but had now been revealed, or will be revealed. What they do in this book is study all the instances where the word occurs in scripture, primarily in Daniel in the Old Testament, some in inter-testamental Judaism, and in the canonical New Testament books of Matthew, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, and Revelation. They devote a chapter to each of these, exegeting the text, and in the case of the New Testament books, showing the echoes or connections back to Daniel in almost every use–often in parallels in word usage and meaning, as well as in the elaboration or fuller development of that meaning. Each chapter includes conclusions that summarize the biblical theology of mystery in that book. Many of the chapters also have excurses on special issues related to the text of a particular book.

The final chapters consider the theme of mystery in the New Testament even where the word does not occur, the contrast between the esoteric character of pagan mystery religions and the open character of the biblical proclamation of the mysteries revealed in Christ. A conclusion then ties together the theology of mystery found throughout scripture, showing how so much was revealed in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection and cosmic rule of the Son of God. There is the mystery of the already-not yet kingdom and the inclusion of the Gentiles. Most of all is the mystery of the cruciform work of Christ, how the victory of Christ and salvation and the conquest of Satan occurred through the death of Jesus.

One of the bonuses of this book was the concluding appendix on “The Cognitive Peripheral Vision of the Biblical Authors.” Have you ever noticed how some of the passages cited as prophecies of Christ, seem to mean something very different in their Old Testament context? It seems that the New Testament authors interpret these to mean something very different from what they meant in their original context. Beale and Gladd argue that this reflects a type of “peripheral vision.” The contextual meaning in the Old Testament is the equivalent of the focal point in one’s vision. They would contend, and show evidence from different shadings of meaning within the same Old Testament books, that authors may mean and comprehend more than their explicit intention in a particular passage, such that the appropriation of these passages by New Testament writers falls within their “cognitive peripheral vision.” I’m not sure I buy it yet, but it is an intriguing idea to explore further.

Overall, I thought this was an example of doing biblical theology at its best from a conviction that one may trace both continuity and discontinuity between the testaments but can look for coherence in the whole. They work from exegesis, to summary of the theology of mystery in each book of scripture, to a synthesis of the theology of mystery found in scripture as a whole. Their close, careful study requires the reader’s full attention, but if followed leaves one with a new sense of the wonder of what has been revealed in the coming of Christ, as well as the glories we may yet anticipate.

 

Review: Strong Poison

strong-poison

Strong PoisonDorothy L. Sayers. New York: HarperCollins, 2012 (originally published 1930).

Summary: Harriet Vane is accused of murdering her lover with arsenic. Lord Peter Wimsey believes she is innocent despite damning evidence and sets about to prove it.

Harriet Vane is awaiting the jury’s verdict. She is on trial for murdering a former lover, Philip Boyes after breaking off their relationship. Both are authors, Vane as a mystery writer the more successful. Her current novel concerns poisoning by arsenic and in her research she obtained samples of arsenic under assumed names. Following several meetings with her, Boyes suffered gastric distress. After going away for his health, he returns, and after dining with his cousin Norman Urquhart, he visits Harriet one more time to plead his case. That night, he falls terribly ill with gastric distress, of which he dies four days later. After a nurse’s suspicions are made known, an autopsy uncovers arsenic as the cause of death.

The cousin seems to have an airtight alibi–the two had shared the same food and drink, some of which Boyes himself had prepared. Hence Vane is the only plausible suspect with means, motive, and opportunity. Yet in the end, the jury comes back with a “hung” verdict. Wimsey takes an interest in the case, believing her innocent, and uses the reprieve to investigate. He focuses on Urquhart, whose alibi seems just a bit too perfect.

This leads to what is the most amusing part of the story as Miss Climpson and her typing agency, supported by Lord Peter, go undercover. Miss Murchison goes to work in Urquhart’s office. And Miss Climpson cultivates a spiritualist interest in the caregiver of wealthy old Cremorna Garden, an infirm relative of Urquhart and Boyes. And of course, the ever-resourceful Bunter befriends the household staff of Urquhart.

Time is winding down. Suspicions are confirmed. But will Wimsey get the evidence needed to exonerate Harriet? And how will she respond to Lord Peter’s proposal of marriage?

This is all great, good fun in what seemed to me one of Sayers’ fastest paced mysteries. Sayers introduces in Vane a strong female character who makes one wonder if she is modeled after Sayers herself. She inserts an egalitarian interest as Detective Parker becomes engaged to Lady Mary, Wimsey’s younger sister, with his full support. All wrapped up in a great story.