By now, many of you lovely readers will know what it means when I start reading a lot of mysteries. Stress. Mystery reading = Scott x stress, as it were.
No, it's nothing major. Only that our office is relocating this weekend, and guess who's in charge of coordinating it? It's actually kind of fun (emphasis on the "kind of"), but it is rather all-consuming—sudden recollections in the shower of forgotten things to do, nebulous dreams about labyrinths of packing boxes, etc., etc. So, not a great deal of time for reading, and not a lot of focus or concentration for tackling anything very profound.
AGATHA CHRISTIE, Cat Among the Pigeons (1959)
My ultimate standby for stressful times is dear Dame Agatha, and I know that she is anything but "lesser-known" (what with being the bestselling novelist of all time and all) but on this one occasion I can't resist. When Lyn at I Prefer Reading recently discussed Josephine Tey's Miss Pym Disposes, memorably set in a girls' school, she also mentioned that Agatha's Cat Among the Pigeons had a similar setting, which I had completely forgotten and which triggered my urge for a re-read. I'm glad it did, because I had always remembered Cat—read only once many years ago—as a rather weak example of Christie's craft. Which might be true, judged as a whodunit and weighed against Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None. The puzzle here is nothing by comparison to those, is perhaps even a bit obvious.
But what I found on this re-read is that, if you judge instead on the basis of character, humor, and entertainment value, Cat Among the Pigeons might actually be one of Christie's best novels. The girls' school setting makes for a fun cast of women and schoolgirls, many provided with a bit more complex character development than Dame Agatha sometimes bothers herself with, and for this reason, the fact that Poirot doesn't appear until quite late is (as it was in Gladys Mitchell's similarly structured Convent on Styx, which I discussed a while back) more of a strength than the weakness it might usually be.
The story opens on the first day of a new term, with the headmistress greeting students and parents, and staff members discussing their holidays and settling in to work again. We meet the indomitable headmistress, Miss Bulstrode, who is looking toward retirement and thinking of a successor; several of the possible successors, including Miss Chadwick, co-founder of the school and devoted to her work but lacking the charisma and personality required of a headmistress; spunky student Julia Upjohn and her charming and energetic mother, formerly of British Intelligence; Jennifer Sutcliffe, Julia's slightly dim friend, around whose tennis racket much of the action of the novel revolves, and her slightly gaga mother; and an obnoxious and nosy games mistress who is practically wearing a "murder me" sign on her back for the first few chapters until…well, you know.
This is certainly the funniest Christie novel I recall—at least apart from the late, underrated Tommy & Tuppence novels which are a little on the daft side—and the school setting was irresistible to me, seduced as I have been by my first few experience with girls' school stories. For instance, Miss Bulstrode's perhaps somewhat jaded attitude toward a fretting mother:
"Henrietta, you see, is very highly strung. Very highly strung indeed. Our doctor says…"
Miss Bulstrode nodded, with gentle reassurance, refraining from the caustic phrase she sometimes was tempted to utter.
"Don't you know, you idiot, that that is what every fool of a woman says about her child?"
She spoke with firm sympathy.
"You need have no anxiety, Mrs. Hope. Miss Rowan, a member of our staff, is a fully trained psychologist. You'll be surprised, I'm sure, at the change you'll find in Henrietta (who's a nice intelligent child and far too good for you) after a term or two here."
And here, a bit later, is Mrs. Sutcliffe making the novel's requisite comment on the servant situation, after reading an account in the newspaper of the recent break-in at her house:
She added wistfully, as she glanced again at the local paper:
"How beautifully grand 'kitchen staff' sounds. So different from what it really is, old Mrs. Ellis who is quite deaf and can hardly stand up and that half-witted daughter of the Bardwells who comes in to help on weekday mornings."
As the events of the novel escalate, it is fifteen-year-old Julia Upjohn, as fearless as her mother, who seeks out Hercule Poirot and calls him in to investigate. And her mother, the ex-spy, might have valuable information, if only she could be traced:
"When the child said a bus, I thought she meant a proper coach tour, running to schedule, and a party all booked together. But that's not it at all. Seems she's just taking local buses to any place she happens to fancy! She's not done it through Cook's or a recognized travel agency. She's all on her own, wandering about. What can you do with a woman like that? She might be anywhere. There's a lot of Anatolia!"
One might imagine that Mrs. Upjohn is just a sort of idealized adventurer figure, a la Mrs. Pollifax, but perhaps there is actually just a trace of Christie herself in her, since Christie in middle age spent much time jetting to and from exotic locales with her archaeologist second husband? At any rate, I found Mrs. Upjohn fairly irresistible.
As I did, honestly, the entire novel. If Cat Among the Pigeons is not Christie at her best as a puzzler, it's certainly one of her best as a creator of likeable characters and interesting situations. That it's also as good as a snifter of brandy at relieving stress is a bonus.
PATRICIA MOYES, Down Among the Dead Men (1961)
After paying my beloved Dame Agatha a return visit, I picked up my first Patricia Moyes, which had been gathering dust on my bookcase for at least two years since coming across it at an SF Library book sale.
Down Among the Dead Men is actually Moyes' second novel, and I now have her first, Dead Men Don't Ski, in my hot little hands, since I felt compelled to order a copy from Paperback Swap as soon as I finished Down Among the Dead Men.
Just a short note on this one, I'm afraid, because I haven't had time to make very significant notes. But I do recommend Moyes to fans of mysteries, especially those who like their mysteries on the cozy side. Inexplicably, it seems that Moyes is totally out of print, in the U.S. at least, which is really a shame.
In both of these novels, Inspector Henry Tibbett and his wife Emmy are attempting to take vacations but instead get caught up in murder. Down Among the Dead Men is set during their boating holiday with friends, and contains lots of details of schooners and frigates and sterns and keels and other such terms which might as well be Sanskrit as far as I'm concerned. But since Henry and Emmy are only just learning the ropes as well, it all felt quite interesting and almost as enjoyable as being on holiday myself (I wish!). They encounter charming and funny characters in the village of Berrybridge (except for the murderer, who is somewhat less charming), and it's all quite and irresistible.
As a teaser, here is the opening, which immediately drew me in and displays Moyes' understated humor to good effect:
It is often interesting, in retrospect, to consider the trifling causes that lead to great events. A chance encounter, a thoughtless remark—and the tortuous chain reaction of coincidence is set in motion, leading with devious inevitability to some resounding climax.
For instance, it is virtually certain that if Emmy Tibbett had not broken her shoulder strap in a small, smoky restaurant just off King's Road, Chelsea, one spring evening, the Berrybridge murderer would have got clean away. For if Emmy had not snapped that slender pink ribbon, she would never have spoken to Rosemary Benson in the ladies' room, and accepted the loan of a safety pin; the friendship between the Bensons and the Tibbetts would never have sprung up; and Henry and Emmy Tibbett would never have found themselves, some months later, crammed first into new, tight, unyielding blue jeans and subsequently into an overloaded station wagon, en route for a fortnight's sailing holiday at Berrybridge Haven with the Bensons.