Monday 12 July 2010

There is Nothing Like A Dame

Hello there, I'm back from my trips! I'll have a rummage through my photographs at some point, and put some up for you to enjoy. Colin did *quite* well at preventing me from reading all the time, but I still managed to read quite a few books, including a mammoth one. And, being the contrary type, the first two I read weren't even on the list I made. The first was The Seraphim Room by Edith Olivier, which I finished on the train down to Somerset, but the second was a definite read-it-on-a-whim book - usually the most fun. The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) by Agatha Christie somehow leaped to the top of the tbr pile, despite not being anywhere in sight beforehand.

Although my reading is quite diverse now - well, quite diverse - it used to go in very focused swathes. Enid Blyton - Goosebumps - Point Horror - Sweet Valley High (ahem) - Agatha Christie - AA Milne - everything else. When I was on the trail of an author or series, I read very little else for a long time. And, as you can see, Agatha Christie was one of them - and back in about 1999-2001 I read lots and lots by the Mistress of Mystery, the Empress of Enigmas, the Doyenne of Detectives... feel free to come up with your own.

Somehow it had been five and a half years since I last read a Christie novel (that one being At Bertram's Hotel) and I had a sudden hankering for another. And it
seemed quite ridiculous that, having grown up in a vicarage, that I hadn't read The Murder in the Vicarage. So that was the one I pulled off the shelf and took on holiday.

I must add, before I go further, that I was spurred on by recent enthusiasm in Agatha's direction from Harriet and Simon S - so thank you both for helping me revisit the Dame!

The Murder at the Vicarage is the first novel featuring Miss Marple (although she had previously popped up in a short story, my resident Christie-expert [Colin] tells me) and is narrated by the vicar whose home is unfortunately the scene of said murder. I won't go through all the various characters and connections, because they're much the same as any Christie novel. I don't mean they're stereotypes, but rather that they have complex relationships; secrets and lies; affinities and enmities - all the usual, delicious ingredients for a proper murder mystery.

All of that I was expecting. What I wasn't expecting, what I had somehow either forgotten or never noticed, was how funny Christie is. The problems the vicar and his wife have with their servant are written so amusingly, I laughed out loud a few times. She also has the drifting 'oh gosh how we simply shrieked' type down pat too. Annoyingly I've left the book at home, so I can't quote sections to you... so you'll have to take my word for it.

I only had two problems with The Murder at the Vicarage. Firstly, I wasn't bowled over by the solution - Dame A can sometimes write such brilliant denouements, that this one didn't quite live up to her genius for plot. Secondly, although Miss Marple's first novel, she didn't feature very much, and I mourned her absence because I love Jane Marple. Her character hadn't quite settled down to the Miss M we know and love, but her interest in 'human nature', and her catalogue of seemingly unrelated anecdotes to help her deduce - they were present and correct. I just wanted more of her in the novel.

But I imagine there are quite a few of us in the same boat - we watch Christie adaptations on TV, and have read a fair few of her novels over the years, but maybe not for a while - and don't quite rate her as a good prose stylist or delineater of character, etc. I think it's worth looking again, and reinvestigating the Dame. I'm definitely glad I did.

Books to get Stuck into

To be honest, I've been pretty underwhelmed by some of the other Golden Age and pre-Golden Age detective fiction writers. In comparison to Christie's plots, they just seem a bit poor - Christie never springs surprises on you at the last minute; the clues are always there if you look closely enough. So I've picked a couple of my favourite Christies:

And Then There Were None
- my favourite, and Colin's favourite, even without Poirot or Marple or any detective at all - it's probably her cleverest story. Ten people are mysteriously invited to an island, and are even more mysteriously killed off one by one...

The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side
- a Miss Marple, with a simply brilliant plot, and a good one to get a feel for AC if - goodness me - you've not read one before.


  1. Oh, goodness, Simon! I love that you read Sweet Valley High! I'll make you feel less embarrassed: I definitely read the vampire spin-off (pre-Twilight by over 10 years!). No shame!

    Glad you enjoyed your vacation and your reading. All those conspirators who try to keep us from reading should just resign themselves to the fact that is impossible for us NOT to read!

  2. Christie is a funny writer. She gets a lot of criticism for writing one-dimensional characters, and I can see how it would bother people, but she writes "types" in a way that always amuses me. And I will say for her that she never lets what "type" a character is get in the way of who's done the murder.

    Love this post title, btw!

  3. Oh dear. I never would have pegged you for a Sweet Valley High Reader (I was one too.) And I was also in my younger days a reader who would get obsessed and read nothing but my current series/author obsession.

    I haven't read any Agatha Christie for years, but I do have fond memories of performing in a couple of Christie's plays. In And Then There Were None, I was Dr. Armstrong--because there weren't enough boys in our drama group and too many girls for the three female roles. I was also the housekeeper in an obscure play of hers called The Unexpected Guest, the climax of which involved my trying to wrestle a gun away from another character. Yep, fond memories.

  4. Sweet Valley High!!!! it passed me by as I was too old at the time!

    Agatha Christie is someone you go back to again and again and again. I read the books in my teens originally, am in my fifties now and still going back to them.

  5. While we are confessing... Biggles.

  6. Although I read all of them years ago, I always return to AC (or Aggie as she is known in our family!) for comfort reading - I love most of the plots and yes, i find her funny.... My favourite Marple is A Murder is Announced - have you tried that Simon? I think you might enjoy it.
    Thanks for sharing

  7. Hugely entertained by your SVH confession - that's another guilty reading past of mine. I'm actually rereading a similiar series at the moment!

  8. Glad you had a good holiday! You made me smirk when you admitted you read Sweet Valley High - bless you!
    I was more a Babysitters Club girl myself!

    I have only read one Agatha Christie - The Body in the Library. I loved it! But I haven't read any others since. My grandad is her biggest fan and has about ten copies of each of her books. So I have no excuse really. I'll ask to borrow one next time I see him!

  9. Never feel ashamed for the SVH reading, Simon! I read a few but I was addicted to the Sweet Valley Twins (and BSC) at younger age and then the SV College books later on, somehow bypassing the SVH books in full. I also loved Point Horror :)

    I have a strange aversion to anything Christie that doesn't feature Poirot...

  10. Does your comment about the underwhelmingness of other Golden Age detective authors mean that you haven't read any of Dorothy L. Sayers' Wimsey novels? (Yes, I am a big enough fan that I cannot conceive of anyone being underwhelmed by them.) If so, tut tut! And you an Oxford-dweller too! The first in the series is Whose Body?, but you could equally well start with Strong Poison (for the romance arc) or The Nine Tailors (my own starting-point and one of the best).

  11. I'm afraid it doesn't mean that, Rosie... I've tried two Sayers novels and didn't get on with them at all... not least because I wanted to give Peter Wimsey a slap! (Sorry! I know I am almost alone in my dislike of him...)

    And who'd have thought, everyone else, that my innocent and momentary mention of Sweet Valley High would cause such mirth! I had rather expected it, but I thought I'd be honest ;-)

  12. I am in a bit of a grump as I tried to comment on this last night and my silly iphone hates blogger hahaha.

    Anyways am thrilled to be part of a delightful duo to make you subconciously want to read Christie again.

    I do wonder if Miss Jane Marple is in any of the books of hers as much as you think they are. She isnt in the 4.50 From Paddington very much its her niece that is. I don't think she was in Bertrams Hotel that much either. Maybe I am wrong? I must read another one... just to check of course hahaha.

  13. Welcome back! You were missed while you were away, but glad to hear that you had a wonderful vacation.

    Ah, the love for Dame Agatha is great at our house. I read through all I could get my hands on back in my early teens and still have my beaten up paperbacks that my oldest two children are now enjoying. I've seen some lovely new hardback editions, but I'm letting my girls collect those for their own libraries -- preferring the memories in my paperbacks. :) Last week for my birthday I rec'd a copy of Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks. If you haven't seen it, you might find it interesting.

    (SVH was after my time, I'm afraid. My similar indulgence would've probably been Trixie Belden mysteries. :) )

  14. Just to let you know I discovered your blog while you were away, and I absolutely love it! I have searched for a long while for a blog that reflects my reading tastes – but more specifically my attitude to reading – as well as being so well written. More power to your blogger’s elbow. (You’ve already made me fancy a Marple – I only really know the Margaret Rutherford incarnation.)

  15. I have been reading Christie for over a decade and I still dont get tired. My favorite and yes , very cliched, detective is Poirot. I have a collection of 50 short stories where Poirot features as a detective and those are my favorite. I do think "Then there were none" is a brilliant novel. My all time favorite is "Death on the Nile" probably its the first AC mystery that I read. I do like Miss Marple and think that she is very endearing but I prefer the logical deduction of Poirot rather than the inspirations of Miss M ( Miss M always looks at real life for solving her mystery, a talent yes but a tad boring)

  16. Trixie Belden, the thinking girl's Nancy Drew. Susan in Texas, you must be a kindred spirit.

  17. SO glad you are back!

    and with a post I just love. Sweet Valley High- be still my heart.

  18. The Murder at the Vicarage...why haven't I read that one yet either haha. The short story with Miss Marple you referred that the one where the detectives are dining together?....I love mystery.gotta check that one out.l

  19. I grew up stealing my older sister's SVH books. I love that you enjoyed them, too. (Did you know Diablo Cody is making a feature film about them?)

    I came to Agatha Christie quite late, only discovering them roughly the same time my graduate thesis needed to be written. My mother, who loves most of the great mystery novelists of the time, seems to have cocked a snoot at Agatha Christie, and to this day won't read them. Shame, because as you say, they're (generally) very well written and she is very, very funny.


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