Posts tagged “detective fiction

Detective fiction – Sparkling Cyanide (Remembered Death)

I have mixed thoughts on Sparkling Cyanide. Rosemary Barton, a spoiled and beautiful heiress, was fatally poisoned at her own birthday party. For want of conclusive evidence suggesting otherwise, the case was closed as “suicide”. However, less than a year after Rosemary’s death, her husband, George Barton, receives anonymous letters indicating that Rosemary was a victim of murder. George takes it upon himself to re-investigate the circumstances of Rosemary’s alleged suicide. The witnesses of Rosemary’s death, each a potential murderer in the reader’s eyes, take turns to contemplate their opinions of, and relationships with, the late Rosemary.

These characters’ monologues make the strongest case for Sparkling Cyanide; they are by turns entertaining and sobering, and each has an intriguing mix of detective reasoning and human psychology. Neither a Hercule Poirot nor a Miss Marple mystery, the detective of this story is Colonel Johnnie Race, introduced mid-book as one who is “not good at small talk and might indeed have posed as the model of a strong silent man so beloved by an earlier generation of novelists.” Race is very likeable, calm and ineffable like Christie’s detectives are, with a bit of a paranoid, “Alastor Mad-Eye Moody” (JK Rowling’s Harry Potter) reputation. 

Alongside the murder mystery is a dexterous narration of love in its various forms. Marriage and (in)fidelity are recurrents motive for each suspect and their personal lives are well depicted without overshadowing the main plot. Of George brooding over Rosemary’s extra marital affair, Christie writes :

“He’d known quick enough, sensed the difference in her. The rising excitement, the added beauty, the whole glowing radiance.”

A foil to the frivolous and selfish Rosemary is Alexandra Farraday, intelligent but awkward, outwardly reserved but inwardly passionate.

“From the day of their marriage she had realized that he did not love her in the same way as she loved him…That power of loving was her own unhappy heritage. To care with a desperation, an intensity that was, she knew, unusual among women! She would have died for him willingly; she was ready to lie for him, scheme with him, suffer for him! Instead she accepted with pride and reserve the place he wanted her to fill. He wanted her co-operation, her sympathy, her active and intellectual help. He wanted of her, not her heart, but her brains, and those material advantages with birth had given her. One thing she would never do, embarrass him by the expression of a devotion to which he could make no adequate return…(even after knowing of his affair), never for one minute did Sandra consider leaving him. The idea never even came to her. She was his, body and soul, to take or discard. He was her life, her existence. Love burned in her with a medieval force.”

Thumbs up also for Christie’s moments of dry humour, which avoid the trap of exasperating readers. In portraying a constantly distracted, extremely talkative aunt who has “stiffened into a pronouced spinsterhood”, Christie explains her convulated and confusing thoughts : “Aunt Lucilla’s reasoning was always crystal clear to herself.”

Since the novel is about romantic love, I also like the touch of closure the two youngest protagonists, Anthony and Iris, bring when they fall for each other and discuss their marriage at the end of the book :

“All that (murder) for money! […] Anthony – I don’t think I like my money very much. ” 

“All right, sweet – we’ll do something noble with it if you like. I’ve got enough money to live on – and to keep a wife in reasonable comfort. We’ll give it all away if you like – endow homes for children, or provide free tobaccol for old men, or – how about a campaign for serving better coffee all over England?”

“I shall keep a little,” said Iris. “So that if I ever wanted to, I could be grand and walk out and leave you.”

“I don’t think, Iris, that that is the right spirit to enter upon married life.”

Agatha Christie captures a memorable cast of narrators and suspects, but the resolution fails to impress. The climax of the book, if well dramatized, is unsurprising. The explanation of the murder itself is thoroughly hurried through, the motive is thin and the murderer’s modus-operandi not ingenious enough after the suspense of the novel. For someone who was stumped by the possibilities and eager for the murderer to be revealed, I was quite disappointed. Looking back, although Sparkling Cyanide seems like one of those books which have been “written into a corner”, it still is a very worthwhile read.


Detective fiction – Evil Under the Sun

(Disclaimer : The following is purely my own opinion. No hard feelings intended, and comments always welcome.)

I’ve mentioned before that most would-be-catchy book titles warn me off pretty effectively, but this is largely untrue for Agatha Christie titles. For one, her tried-and-tested ‘old school’ writing style guarantees good language, description and narration – winning half the battle for a good book. For two, (for two?? Is this correct??) Harper Collins (one of my preferred publishers) uses an elegant, quietly confident design for Christie’s books, meaning that even the loudest titles are balanced by subtle colours and fonts. I couldn’t find my edition of Evil Under the Sun online, and in the previous version of this post I used the ‘newer’, standardized Harper Collins edition of Agatha Christie. Then I hit upon the brainwave of bluetooth-ing the image of my book cover to the computer! (I am so tech savvy now!) So here now is the edition of Evil Under the Sun that I have. A pity the old design – apparently the signature edition one – seems to be unavailable now. Good book covers are always worth admiring. I particularly like the embossed “POIROT” on the bottom right corner.  

Evil Under the Sun has been made into a movie, a computer game (Wii??) so far, and it’s often in the “Poirot classics” collection – which says something about it’s positive reviews so far. This Christie involves Poirot investigating the murder of a beautiful actress while he is on a holiday by the beach. Expect the usual set of puzzling clues, the appreciable leisurely character development, the turning of Poirot’s mental cogs and the quivering of his incredible mustachios, and yet another unexpected ending.

However, something about Evil Under the Sun lacks completeness. The story begins with engaging characters and an exploration of some interesting concepts, but once the murder takes place, the book’s focus on clue-finding and suspect-eliminating takes centerstage, cutting short character and concept development. I would have liked more thorough portrayal of evil and predation, which, after all, drives the killer’s actions. To explain it with “it is natural instinct to murder for money” is not only abrupt but disappointing; even if predatory instinct was deemed largely animalistic in Christie’s time, I’d expected a better psychoanalysis on Poirot’s part. Furthermore, while the method of murder itself is ingenius, I find it unbelievable that Poirot was able to unravel the entire sequence of events. For me, the lack of conviction is due in part to Poirot makes one too many “lucky guesses” this time.

As with many Five Little Pigs (can’t generalize with other Christie books), Evil Under the Sun has its characters exploring values like love, loyalty and marriage. In broader terms, Christie’s murders address the conflict of ideals between Victorian society and modern society. It adds suitable societal background to the book without digging up sordid pasts or dwelling on angsty scenes. From Five Little Pigs and Evil Under the Sun, it seems safe to trust Agatha Christie with a tasteful, well written and intelligent mystery. Since the reviews of this book have been largely positive, I would go ahead and recommend it anyway.

Detective fiction – Five Little Pigs (Murder in Retrospect)

Disclaimer : The following is purely my own opinion. No hard feelings, and comments are always welcome.

Other than some devious smart-talking in Powerpuff Girls monopoly, five whole days with the Raju gang has left me severely starved of intellectual activity. Luckily for me, I have enough books to restart my mental faculties, while remaining well within the boundaries of my no-working-only-slacking promise to myself.

So my cloggy innards were itching for a good detective fiction. Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, or Watson and Holmes? I cleave invariably to the funny little Belgian detective with the large moustache and the “little grey cells”, so Hercule Poirot it was – although I’ll admit to having never really acknowledged the quality of Agatha Christie’s writing until only two days ago. Now that I do, my only defence is that I read Agatha Christie alongside writers like R.L. Stine (Goosebumps series) and Enid Blyton (The Wishing Chair, the Secret Seven the Famous Five, etc). That is to say, I read Agatha Christie’s novels when I was around 7 or 8, long before I was mentally ‘equipped’ to appreciate a good detective novel. Other than my favourite Poirot case, Curtain, which I read (and stupidly misplaced) nearly ten years ago, I recall almost nothing of all the other Agatha Christie novels I’ve read.

I decided on Five Little Pigs this time. The alternative title is Murder in Retrospect, which is rather more appropriate a title, since the book involves Hercule Poirot investigating a murder case which was closed sixteen years ago. Carla Lemarchant, daughter of convicted murderess Caroline Crale, is convinced of her mother’s innocence and recruits Poirot’s remarkable detective prowess to clear her mother’s name. Knowing full well that the crime scene can no longer be accessed, Hercule Poirot is nevertheless confident that “psychology doesn’t change with time. The tangible things are gone – the cigarette-end and the footprints and the bent blades of grass. You can’t look for those anymore. But you can still go over all the facts of the case…and then lie back in your chair and think. And you’ll know what really happened.” Thus armed with his formidable and imaginative brain, Hercule Poirot interviews those who were involved in the crime sixteen years ago and pieces together, from their recollections, the truth that will acquit Caroline Crale of any charge.

“…with the passage of time, the mind retains a hold on essentials and rejects superficial matters.

“We are speaking now from the psychological point of view. I do not want bare facts. I want your own selection of facts. Time and your memory are responsible for that selection.”

I have read that Five Little Pigs is the best of Christie’s Hercule Poirot collection, and while I have no other Christie to compare it to, it was definitely a very enjoyable and stimulating read. The crime is covered from ten different perspectives (friends, police reports, lawyer, etc), allowing Poirot to pick out little details and construct his own version of what really happened. As a mark of excellence, Christie does not allow the repetition to become tiresome, but uses the opportunity to capture each storyteller realistically and distinctively. Aside from developing a solid, convincing cast, Christie lets readers compare personality with testimony and judge each character’ on truthfulness (the characters do lie!). Discerning readers will be able to spot the inconsistencies through the multiple-narrative technique, pick up character traits and biasness, and guess the real murderer before the denouement. Furthermore, Poirot – or Christie – has a superb understanding of human psychology and presents, very comprehensively, the human impulses that are often abstract, vague, and not easily described in words. 

“Do you know the way that things suddenly come back to you – after years, perhaps. I was once staying at a hotel. As I walked along a passage, one of the bedroom doors opened and a woman I knew came out. It was not her bedroom – and she registered the fact plainly on her face when she saw me.

“And I knew then the meaning of the expression I had once seen on Caroline’s face when, at Alderbury, she came out of Philip Blake’s room one night.

“I had no idea at the time, you understand. I knew things…but I didn’t connect them with reality. Caroline coming out of Philip Blake’s bedroom was just Caroline coming out of Philip Blake’s bedroom to me. It might have been Miss William’s room or my room. But what I did notice was the expression on her face – a queer expression that I didn’t know and couldn’t understand. I didn’t understand it until, as I told you, the night in Paris when I saw that same expression on another woman’s face. ” – Angela Warren, to Hercule Poirot

And Hercule Poirot himself – what a very marvelous character! – marvelous in the way that Arthur Weasley beams and says of muggles and their ‘ekeltricity’, “marvelous!” By any definition of the word Poirot should be ‘intriguing’ and ‘fascinating’, but these words connote a dynamic and compelling protagonist, which does not square with the quaint, foreign, odd little Hercule Poirot. There are many protagonists who are charismatic and forceful, who can herd and gather and direct the thoughts and actions of others. But Poirot is not one of them, and that is why he is so remarkable. Poirot is a hero who does not convince and does not influence – it is not his job to do so. Poirot goes out of his way to be “despised, but patronised”, a “most impossible person – the wrong clothes – button boots! – an incredible moustache! – a foreigner.”

“Hercule Poirot prided himself on knowing how to handle an ‘old school tie’ (a colloquial term for the usually conservative, slightly exclusive upper-class Englishman). It was no moment for trying to seem English. No, one must be a foreigner – frankly a foreigner – and be magnanimously forgiven for the fact. ‘Of course, these foreigners don’t quite know the ropes. Will shake hands at breakfast. Still, a decent fellow really…'”

My only problem was the unrealistic clarity with which a sixteen-years-ago event is recalled. Facial expressions, standing positions, exact words and phrases recalled in such detail…it’s all rather unbelievable, and while Poirot’s genius is obvious, a few of his conclusions are also based on certain small coincidental words said by the witnesses – without which Poirot would have had a harder time coming to his own conclusions. I suppose, in hindsight, that if these testimonials had been questioned, re-questioned and reconfirmed by the court during trial, then they would be more easily remembered. I would have also skipped a the ‘written record’ of each testimonial as that makes a total of fifteen recounts of the same incident. Other than that, Five Little Pigs is a highly recommended read.