Little Hideout

Of Agatha Christie, murders, and plot twists

AGATHA CHRISTIE’S BOOK OF POISONS (Part One)

More than two millennia ago, famous Greek philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death by drinking a cup of the poison hemlock. Cleopatra, pharaoh of Ancient Egypt committed suicide by an asp’s venomous bite, and Adolf Hitler allegedly bit into a cyanide capsule to avoid capture after his defeat in World War II. Be it in history or in fiction, deaths by poisoning have always fascinated me. From A to Z, here is a compilation of Christie’s deadliest weapon- poisons.

 

Aconite/ Aconitine
Featured in: 4.50 from Paddington, They do it with Mirrors
The aconitum plant, more popularly known as monkshood, the devil’s helmet or wolf’s bane, is the source from which the toxic compound aconite is synthesised from. The first onset of symptoms may appear anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours after oral ingestion; they include tingling sensations in the face, sweating and nausea, heart palpitations and paralysis of the skeletal muscles which eventually lead to death by cardiac arrest. In 4.50 from Paddington, the unfortunate victim of the toxin is Harold Crackenthorpe, who died as a result of taking aconite-containing pills which resemble his prescribed sleeping pills.

 

Arsenic
Featured in: 4.50 from Paddington, Poirot’s Early Cases, The Listerdale Mystery, The Thirteen Problems
Contrary to the many novel poisons used by Christie, arsenic is a very common element found in almost everywhere- it is naturally-occurring in many minerals, water and soil, and can even be traced to food such as fish and rice. Arsenic can be the source of both acute and chronic poisoning- either administered in a large single dose, or in small quantities over a period of time. Once ingested in sufficient amount, symptoms of toxicity may appear as vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain and dark-coloured urine. Arsenic works by reacting with proteins in the cell, uncoupling the process of oxidative phosphorylation and thus inhibiting ATP synthesis- a coenzyme vital to many cellular functions. Death occurs from multiple organ failures. The source of arsenic in detective fiction is often household products such as rat poisons, pesticides and fly papers; making it a popular choice for domestic murders.

 

Bacillus anthracis (Anthrax) toxin
Featured in: Cards on the Table
The rod-shaped anthrax bacteria occur naturally in the soil, most commonly in the form of endospores where they get transferred to grazing animals. Infection of humans occurs via direct contact with the animals, or their products such as meat and hide. Such is the case with the “shaving brush incident” around 1915 to the early 1920s, where horsehair and pig bristles used to make the brushes were actually contaminated with the bacteria. In Cards on the Table, Mr. Craddock died as a result of anthrax from his shaving brush, although his demise was far from accidental. Anthrax spores were deliberately planted on his brush, so that infection would occur transcutaneously as he nicked himself with the razor- a highly ingenious method of murder, although Christie made no attempt to explain how the culprit had managed to obtain the spores or how he could have transferred them effectively to the victim’s brush without risking himself in the process.

 

Belladonna
Featured in: A Caribbean Mystery, The Big Four
Atropa belladonna, or more commonly known as the deadly nightshade, is a branching herbaceous plant native to central and southern Europe. It grows lushly under the shades of trees and wooded hills. Every part of the plant is poisonous; the roots, berries, leaves and the flowers contain the poisonous alkaloids scopolamine and hyoscyamine which can cause delirium and hallucinations. Despite all that, belladonna has quite a number of medicinal uses- ranging from treatment of Parkinson’s disease to motion sickness and haemorrhoids. When used as a poison, symptom manifestations include blurred vision, tachycardia, confusion, and acute anticholinergic syndrome leading to death. In A Caribbean Mystery, Molly Kendall was poisoned by her belladonna-tampered cosmetics, driving her to vivid hallucinations and near madness, although no death results from the drug’s use in the story.

 

Cocaine
Featured in: Poirot’s Early Cases, Peril at End House
A purified extract of the coca plant, cocaine is a powerful, addictive stimulant often used as a recreational drug. Routes of administration are by smoking, inhalation or direct injection into bloodstream. Symptoms include euphoria, restlessness, tremors and convulsions- with death resulting from cardiac arrest at high doses. In The Affair at the Victory Ball, actress Coco Courtenay is overdosed with the drug by her own supplier, leading to death that is easily disguised as an accidental overdose due to her habit with the drug. Peril at End House also features the drug, where Nick Buckley was sent a box of chocolates laced with cocaine.

 

Coniine
Featured in: Five Little Pigs
Coniine is a highly volatile, poisonous alkaloid that makes up the primary active ingredient in the infamous hemlock poison. When consumed, coniine produces an initial feeling of euphoria but also causes severe depression on the peripheral nervous system, leading to respiratory paralysis and eventual death from lack of oxygen supply to the body. Sixteen years prior to the main events in the story, artist Amyas Crale died as he was painting the portrait of his mistress, having drunk from a beer glass laced with coniine.

 

Chloral hydrate
Featured in: And Then There Were None
Once a common sleep medication used to treat insomnia, chloral hydrate has both sedative and hypnotic properties, and can be habit-forming over time. Often misused, an acute overdose of the drug may occur which leads to symptoms such as confusion, seizures, a drop in blood pressure and respiratory depression. Combined intake with alcohol or other depressants and opiates creates a deadly cocktail which often leads to toxic drug interactions. Chloral hydrate is used to dispose of Mrs Rogers in the novel, where it was mixed into her brandy. Another victim, Emily Brent is drugged with it in her coffee before finally killed off with an injection of potassium cyanide- which we will discuss next.

 

Cyanide/ Potassium cyanide/ Hydrogen cyanide
Featured in: A Pocketful of Rye, And Then There Were None, Sparkling Cyanide, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side
Cyanide is a chemical compound which contains the cyano (CN) group in its structure; it can be present in many forms such as the inorganic cyanides (sodium cyanide, NaCN or potassium cyanide, KCN) and most of them are highly toxic. The compound is said to have a very distinctive odour resembling bitter almonds. Cyanide works by inhibiting a vital enzyme in the cells, thus disrupting cellular respiration and causing the cells to be starved of oxygen. Results of poisoning vary depending on the amount and route of administration. The respiratory route produces the most harm, but oral ingestion can be fatal as well; immediate symptoms include rapid breathing, dizziness, nausea and vomiting- subsequently respiratory failure and death. Sparkling Cyanide is pretty much a self-explanatory title, which sees the use of the compound in a champagne toast at a dinner table. On the anniversary of his wife Rosemary’s death, George Barton dies in the exact same conditions after sipping his cyanide-laced drink. In The Mirror Crack’d, Ella Zielinsky is poisoned by hydrogen cyanide (or prussic acid) deliberately placed into a nebuliser she uses to treat hay fever.

 

Digitalis/ Digitoxin/ Digoxin
Featured in: Appointment with Death, Crooked House, The Thirteen Problems
Digitalis is a genus of Eurasian herbaceous plants collectively known as the foxgloves. Their characteristic bell-shaped flowers can vary in colour ranging from purple to yellow and white, and all parts of the plant are reportedly poisonous to human. Digitalis as a drug refers to the glycosides synthesised from the plants in this genus; they act to increase the force of myocardial contraction and is often prescribed for patients with heart failure. Toxicity is not uncommon due to the narrow therapeutic index of the drug; when it occurs symptoms may range from CNS disturbances (confusion, hallucinations, xanthopsia) to gastrointestinal (nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea) and cardiac symptoms (bradycardia, tachycardia, convulsions). An overdose of digitalis proves to be a convenient method for murder in Appointment with Death, where the tyrannical Mrs Boynton dies from a hypodermic injection of the drug.

 

Dispholidus typhus (boomslang snake) venom
Featured in: Death in the Clouds
The boomslang is a large and venomous snake native to sub-Saharan Africa, where it is usually found dwelling on trees and shrubs. Their colours may range from green to brown, depending on sex and the average length is between 3.5 to over 5 feet. A bite from the boomslang delivers a deadly dose of the hemotoxic venom- often fatal if untreated. Once it enters the circulatory system, the venom works by destroying red blood cells, leading to tissue and organ damage. It also disables blood clotting and causes severe haemorrhaging. The venom is used only once in Christie’s works- Death in the Clouds where the notorious moneylender Madam Gisele is apparently killed from a wasp’s sting during a flight from Paris to Croydon, England. Upon further investigation, a blowpipe is discovered which would point to deliberate murder by a poisoned dart. However, the actual plot for murder is much more elaborate than that, as Poirot would later realise.

 

Eserine
Featured in: Crooked House
Eserine (also known as physostigmine) occurs naturally in calabar beans; the chemical synthesised from it has several medicinal uses which includes the treatment of glaucoma. It reduces pressure in the eyes by increasing fluid drainage. Toxicity from the use of eserine alone is not common, but when it occurs several side effects may be observed such as nausea, vomiting, seizures, breathing difficulties and irregular heartbeats. Crooked House is yet another example of Christie’s works where the victim gets poisoned by his own medication. The 87-year old Aristide Leonides dies after eserine is substituted into his daily insulin injections, causing his already weak heart to stop working.

 

Evipan
Featured in: Cards on the Table
Also known as hexobarbital in sodium salt form, this barbiturate derivative was widely used in the 1930s- 1950s as an anaesthetic for short operations. Intravenous injection in a large dose results in immediate unconsciousness; the drug has a rapid onset of effects and dosage control is often difficult. In the story, Mrs Lorrimer was disposed of by an intravenous injection on her arm; death results from the combined effects of the drug with Veronal (yet another barbiturate derivative) which she had taken on the previous night.

March 15, 2015 Posted by | Books, Crime Fiction | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Come And Be Hanged

“I like a good detective story. But you know, they begin in the wrong place! They begin with the murder. But the murder is the end. The story begins long before that- years before sometimes- with all the causes and events that bring certain people to a certain place at a certain time on a certain day. All converging towards a given spot… And then, when the time comes- over the top! Zero Hour. Yes, all of them converging towards zero…..” – Mr Treves

 
Towards Zero
Published: 1944
Genre: Crime fiction, mystery, psychology

Towards Zero is one of the few titles that offer a very distinctive plot to its readers- the suspense is built towards the crime rather than focusing on discovering the culprit. It has a meticulously slow pace in the start, very much like Endless Night (1967) and the planned actions did not take place until way into the second half of the story. It is a story which I have enjoyed immensely, and one that I feel would make good review material.

 
The first half of the plot focuses on the development in the lives of characters principal to the story; Nevile Strange, a successful tennis player with an agreeable attitude of sportsmanship, his now-divorced first wife Audrey Strange, and his current young, fiery red-haired wife with a temper to match, Kay Strange. The whole play is staged based on the relationship between these three people, even though several other characters do play their parts in the plan. A few minor events, seemingly insignificant and unrelated, contribute towards what Mr Treves calls the Zero Hour– the one important moment in the story when a sinister plan is completed and the mastermind achieves his objective. One little tale told by Mr. Treves fascinates me particularly- that of a young child who killed his friend while playing with bow and arrows. The incident was ruled as nothing more than an unfortunate accident- but a witness came forward later, claiming to have seen the child practising painstakingly with bow and arrows prior to the incident.

 
The second half of the story is where the momentum really picks up- but to understand how the murders are committed, it is important to first study the topography of the little fishing village where the story is set. The fictional village of Saltcreek is home to Gull’s Point- a seaside mansion located atop a steep cliff, where the book’s major events take place. The hotels Balmoral Court and Easterhead Bay lie on each side of the River Tern, and both sides are connected via a ferry service, as shown on a simple sketch map provided on the first page. Once again, I cannot stress enough on the significance of the geography in this story.

 
Towards Zero gives off the same vibes as that of Three Act Tragedy (1934). Both novels are fundamentally designed based on an idea- that a perfect crime is not only plausible but highly feasible given that the right conditions exist at the right time in the right place. But even with every factor planned meticulously down to the last detail, unforeseen circumstances may arise to upset the plan. Such is the case with the sudden appearance of Mr. Treves, who had inadvertently been invited to the house party at Gull’s Point. He recognised the now grown-up child murderer in the bow-and-arrow story. The latter then gambled with a very desperate, yet resourceful attempt at silencing Mr. Treves once and for all. It was actually my favourite part of the book. While the rest of the play had been planned and orchestrated by what they call a fine Italian hand, the elimination of Mr. Treves had taken place at the spur of the moment. It was by pure ingenuity and luck that the effort was successful- two qualities that are not uncommon among Christie’s charismatic murderers.

 
Taken as a whole, Towards Zero has been an engaging read right from the start. Character development is certainly not lacking and each has played his or her part well in the story. However the style of writing may not suit new readers well- I would suggest something more straightforward for first-time readers.
My rating: 5.0/ 5.0

 

January 17, 2015 Posted by | Books, Crime Fiction | , , , | Leave a comment

Bad Blood

Be it special events such as Christmas and Thanksgiving, or sons who return home from the War- family gatherings are occasions that call for a celebration. But in Christie’s novels, things always manage to go the wrong way. Money, rivalry or revenge- whatever the motive may be, readers love a juicy family drama where the saying “blood is thicker than water” may not always hold true.

After the Funeral (1953)
The first title that leaps to my mind whenever Christie and family are mentioned in one sentence. A murder that occurs within a household mourning the death of another member, and a second murder to follow with it- makes an interesting basis for a story that deviates from her usual plot. Curling up in bed on a rainy night, this book makes a chillingly good read for those who love cold-blooded suspense. After all, can the dead ever lie in peace when the body count keeps rising after the funerals?

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)
Christie’s first-ever published work, in which the renowned Belgian detective Hercule Poirot makes his debut. Poirot finds himself entangled in a murderous family affair, where the family matriarch is apparently killed by a member of the household. Rather a good effort by Christie for her first attempt at whodunits, but definitely not a title that deserves to be on the Top 10 (or even 20) of my list. Somehow, the idea of Poirot running around the village with test tubes and tasting samples from coffee cups does not appeal to me at all. Rather elementary for a great detective who claims to do all his work with his “little grey cells”.

Crooked House (1949)
Malice runs in the blood- this seems to be particularly true for members of the Leonides family. When three generations of them come to live under one roof, troubles start brewing before anyone could suspect a thing. When the old bully patriarch Aristide Leonides died poisoned by his own eye medicine, each of the rather psychologically “crooked” surviving members finds themselves becoming a suspect in the case. With the air of apprehension climbing up a notch everytime the murderer strikes, will the family be able to unmask the culprit in time?

Ordeal by Innocence (1958)
It was not until now that I realise how much this title has in common with Crooked House. Both are noticeably psychological in nature (not much action takes place here), and Ordeal stresses repeatedly on the state of mind of the innocents living in fear knowing that a murderer is among the flock. Readers are brought into the story through the eyes of a distinct outsider, who is introduced into the family early in the story and attempts to act as an amateur sleuth of sorts. Christie named these two as her favourite works of all time.

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938)
The plot for this title somehow feels like an overused recipe to me; the ingredients being Crooked House (nasty family head), The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (impossible locked-room murder) and The Mousetrap all cooked up together in an attempt to bring a new story to life. A long-due family gathering for Christmas turns fatal for Simeon Lee, the tyrannical old man in the Lee family who had tried to stage a wicked play for his estranged children but got the tables turned on himself instead.

Appointment with Death (1938)
Continuing on the saga of deadly family affairs, a different setting brings a breath of fresh air into the usual Christies. Rather than getting cooped up in dreary English homes, the characters embark on an overseas family vacation to the Middle East where murder is not far behind. The only thing that seems wrong with the Boynton family is their lack of life even before anyone starts getting killed; the psychological influence of the matriarch is so strong that apparently her grown-ups have to resort to murder to break away from her. Whether that is the truth behind the case, it is up to Poirot again to uncover justice.

Taken at the Flood (1948)
When a rich elderly man passes on, the reading of the will always turn out a nasty affair. Even more complicated is when there exists an assortment of siblings, young trophy wives and greedy in-laws, all desperately in need for money and are thus out for each other’s blood for a bigger portion of the pie. Money as an objective is used in a number of Christie’s other works- with Dumb Witness (1937) and Sad Cypress (1940) being among her less notable examples.

A Pocket Full of Rye (1953)
And making her entry here is Miss Marple, the gossipy spinster and village amateur sleuth with a penchant for knitting and gardening, and murders. Murder becomes very much a family affair for the Fortescues, when both Rex Fortescue and his young wife died poisoned through their food. Eldest son Percival and black sheep Lancelot both stand to inherit a fortune, but things get complicated when revenge is implicated in the case.

4.50 from Paddington (1957)
A chance observation on a moving train leads to a possible murder investigation at Rutherford Hall, home to the illustrious Crackenthorpe family where a large fortune and innocent lives are at stake. When one after another of the family’s heirs gets eliminated, it is clear that money plays the central role in the deadly game of murder.

Death Comes as the End (1944)
The theme of familial love (or rather, the lack of it) goes a long way back in this story- back to 2000 BC in Thebes, Egypt. When mortuary priest Imhotep brought back a young concubine Nofret, she carried along with her the seeds of hate which were then sown among the other family members. Their quiet, peaceful lives were disrupted forever when men and women alike started dying in mysterious circumstances. Was it truly the act of an ancient curse, or were there hands of malice pulling the strings from behind?

December 10, 2014 Posted by | Books, Crime Fiction | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Crimes by Rhymes- Agatha Christie and Nursery Rhymes

Nursery rhymes were often used in many of Christie’s works; I have counted at least eight titles associated with them. Some of them were indeed utilised brilliantly (And Then There Were None remains Christie’s biggest commercial success after more than seventy years of publication) while the others just fail to impress. Let us have a look at some of the more popular titles out there- just a reminder that this post may reveal a few key points of the plot, or even the outcome of the stories discussed.

Ten Little Indians

(And Then There Were None– 1939)

Perhaps the best example of the use of nursery rhymes by Christie. It is also my personal favourite, perhaps because I have outgrown my fondness for all the Poirots and Marples out there. The book boasts a highly original plot, with a decent count of bodies for a murder mystery, and a great conclusion. The use of the “Ten Little Soldiers” (or Niggers/ Indians) nursery rhyme here is both ingenious and practical, fitting into the plot beautifully while maintaining the element of suspense throughout the story.

Ten little Soldier boys went out to dine,

one choked his little self and then there were nine.

An exciting but rather chilling start to the story. Ten people were invited to a remote island by a mysterious host, only to find themselves getting stranded there with no way of escape. A gramophone record that plays after their first dinner accuses all ten of them of murder at some earlier point in their lives. The first victim then drops dead literally, having been poisoned by a slip of cyanide into his drink.

Nine little Soldier boys sat up very late,

one overslept himself and then there were eight.

The second murder occurs during their first night on the island; the victim dies by an overdose of sleeping draught. With each death, one of the ten figurines on the dining table is removed, installing further fear in the remaining survivors that the deaths are indeed premeditated and thus, confirming their suspicions that there is a clever murderer at work here.

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
.

The subsequent murders are executed according to the rhyme. The five remaining survivors find themselves in a state of high nervous tension, each asking himself… Which one of us did it? With no way of knowing the truth, the “Soldier boys” have no other choice than to continue playing the deadly game against the mastermind, hoping to catch him in action and thus ending this nightmare once and for all. But as we know, things are never as simple as they appear to be…..

Five little Soldier boys going in for law,

One got in Chancery and then there were four.

One of the deciding moments in the story, with only four survivors remaining. The air of suspicion is heavy around them, even as each survivor finds himself going over the border of insanity…

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.

With each of the two remaining survivors convinced that the other party must be guilty, one of them outwits the other, thus becoming the lone survivor of the game. The tenth “Soldier boy” then returns to the house, only to find a noose hanging in her room, ready to be used.

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

In what the murderer describes as the most interesting psychological moment in the story, will the last remaining “Soldier boy” hang herself out of her guilt? The murderer gambled on that she would, and with that the rhyme is completed.

In a shocking and thought-provoking epilogue, the murderer reveals his identity through a letter, sealed in a bottle and thrown into the sea. He also states the fact that the order that the deaths occurred had been significant, with the “least guilty” ones killed off early in the game and were thus spared the psychological torment that would be felt by the remaining members. An intensely good read, with just the right amount of drama, and a thoroughly unpredictable conclusion. A true example of Christie at her very best.

My rating: 5.0/5.0

This Little Piggy

(Five Little Pigs / Murder in Retrospect– 1942)

Unlike And Then There Were None, the plot for this story does not rely much on the use of the nursery rhyme. In fact I do think that Murder in Retrospect is a better title, as it describes just exactly what the plot is about- a murder committed in retrospect, sixteen years prior to the story. Carla Lemarchant, the now grown-up daughter of the late painter Amyas Crale, approaches Poirot to re-open the investigation into her father’s death. Her mother Caroline Crale who was arrested for the case had died in the prison, and it is up to Carla now to find out the truth. But even for Hercule Poirot, investigating a murder committed sixteen years ago, one that has left nothing but cold trails, is no easy task.

This little piggy went to the market,

Readers are introduced to the first of the suspects, Philip Blake, who had supposedly “went to the market” on the day of the murder. Philip had been a stockbroker and a close friend of Amyas, but as innocent as he may seem to be, everyone has a little something to hide.

This little piggy stayed at home,

Represents Meredith Blake, the brother of Philip Blake. He happens to be an herbalist, of whom the poison coniine had been stolen from, apparently by Caroline.

This little piggy had roast beef,

Elsa Greer, a young girl who had posed as a model for Amyas’s paintings and had been his mistress at that time. She is apparently the motive for the crime, a crime of passion where Caroline had poisoned her husband out of her jealousy.

This little piggy had none,

The fourth suspect was Cecilia Williams, a governess for Caroline’s younger half-sister. Although fiercely loyal to Caroline, she seems to have little doubt of the latter’s guilt, for a reason that Poirot will later discover.

And this little piggy went wee wee wee all the way home.

The final suspect was Angela Warren, the younger half-sister of Caroline, and who was blinded in one eye when Caroline threw a paperweight at her as a young child. As more evidences are uncovered, Angela becomes a strong suspect for the murder.

I have mixed feelings on this title. While the plot is original, the story lacks suspense and the pace may get a little slow at times.  With the exception of Elsa Greer and Angela Warren, the other characters have nothing much to offer and are easily forgettable. The conclusion is decent though, and overall the story is an above-average read for fans of crime fiction.

My rating: 3.5/5.0

There Was a Crooked Man

(Crooked House– 1949)

One of Christie’s own personal favourites, together with yet another psychological thriller Ordeal by Innocence. The use of nursery rhyme here serves not only as the title; it also demonstrates the state of the Leonides household perfectly- with each of the member being rather twisted psychologically, due to the influence of the domineering family head Aristide Leonides.

There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile,

He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile.

He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,

And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

Unlike the other more famous works by Christie, this novel does not feature any of the recurring characters as the main investigator. Rather, the task is taken by Charles Hayward, who acts as the narrator for the story. He is introduced to the Leonides family through Sophia Leonides, whom he is supposed to marry.

As the count of bodies in the family rise, it becomes possible to guess correctly the identity of the culprit. For one, the crimes are decidedly simple and yet incredibly clever, successful just because they were executed at the right moments. Everything makes sense only in the end when the real culprit is revealed- and the motives for the murders may send a chill down your spine for the sheer spitefulness behind them. A highly enjoyable title altogether; I would personally recommend this if you have not read it.

My rating: 4.5/ 5.0

Sing a Song of Sixpence

(A Pocket Full of Rye– 1953)

One of my personal favourites from the Miss Marple series. Like And Then There Were None, the use of nursery rhyme here relates to the actual murders as well, and they are rather well-executed.

Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye;

Four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing;

Wasn’t that a dainty dish, to set before the king?

The plot for this story revolves around Rex Fortescue, a rich businessman and the various family members of the Fortescue household. Rex, who had some rather shady business dealings in his past, is reminded of one particular incident involving the Blackbird Mine in Africa when someone in his household plays pranks on him by placing dead blackbirds around the house (and hence, the first reference to the rhyme).

In the Blackbird Mine incident, Rex had apparently swindled his business partner at that time, a man called MacKenzie. The MacKenzie family was ruined; this is supposedly one of the motives for the later murders- revenge for a past wrongdoing.

The King was in his counting house, counting out his money;

The first murder takes place early in the story- that of Rex Fortescue’s. Taxine, a highly unusual poison which can be extracted from yew trees, is used for the murder. The police find rye placed in the victim’s pocket- which completely baffles them at first. It may be a clever red herring to lead the case to the MacKenzies (again the Blackbird Mine incident) but somehow it works against the murderer instead, by putting Miss Marple on the right track to discovery later in the story.

The Queen was in the parlour, eating bread and honey.

The second victim lies in Adele Fortescue, the young and beautiful wife of Rex (and hence, the Queen). While having her afternoon tea she is poisoned with cyanide, fulfilling the verse in the rhyme.

The maid was in the garden, hanging out the clothes;

When down come a blackbird, and nipped off her nose.

Gladys, a maid in the household is found dead in the garden. This is where Miss Marple comes in; Gladys was previously employed and trained by her. Outraged by the immodesty that the killer had shown by putting a clothes peg on the victim’s nose, Miss Marple is more determined than ever to uncover the truth behind the series of killings.

Taken as a whole, this is a decent story and one of Marple’s best. The use of nursery rhyme here makes more sense than that in Five Little Pigs, but somehow seems to serve not much purpose other than to please the audience and perhaps to a degree, to show what a childlike mind the murderer has.

The rhyme is also employed in two other short stories by Christie. Sing a Song of Sixpence appears as part of a collection in The Listerdale Mystery and Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories. On the other hand, Four and Twenty Blackbirds, a short story starring Poirot appears in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and also in the Three Blind Mice anthology.

My rating: 4.0/ 5.0

Other titles with nursery rhymes:

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe– 1940

Three Blind Mice (Three Blind Mice and Other Stories– 1950)

Hickory Dickory Dock– 1955

How Does Your Garden Grow? (Poirot’s Early Cases– 1974)

February 5, 2013 Posted by | Books, Crime Fiction | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Poirot series, Part four

Five Little Pigs

Season 9, Episode 1. Original air date: 14 December 2003.

This movie adaptation of the classic title by Christie starts off great with a dramatic note. It may be confusing to those who have not read the book before this; the background and settings were hardly explained before they get to the major events. Lucy Crale, the daughter of the late painter Amyas Crale is now twenty-one and comes into her inheritance; along with it she receives a letter from her mother who was hanged fourteen years ago for the murder of her father. Although Caroline Crale did not make any protestations of her guilt at that time, in the letter she solemnly swore that she was innocent. Lucy Crale is now determined to clear her mother’s name, regardless of the possible consequences; thus enters Hercule Poirot.

I will not go into details of scenes that follow; sufficient to say that in order to reconstruct the events leading to the murder fourteen years ago, Poirot visits five different people who were present at that time. Philip Blake, best friend of Amyas Crale; his brother Meredith Blake who happens to be a herbalist from whom the fatal dose of poison was obtained; Elsa Greer, now Lady Dittisham who had an ongoing affair with Amyas Crale at the time of the murder; Mrs Williams who used to be a governess in the house and strongly faithful to Caroline Crale; and finally Angela Warren, the disfigured and blind step-sister of Caroline. Each of their account reveals a part of the story, and it is up to Poirot to bring together the various pieces of the puzzle and reveal the truth. If Caroline Crale did not commit the crime, one of the five people must be guilty. Circumstantial evidence at that time pointed to no one but Caroline as the murderer; however Poirot manages to find some conflicting elements that say otherwise.

Overall, this adaptation stays true to the novel except for several small points, such as how Caroline Crale was actually hanged instead of just dying from her illness, and Philip Blake is revealed to have romantic feelings for Amyas, thus his hatred for Caroline; however the essential parts of the story remain unchanged. Five Little Pigs has always been one of Christie’s great masterpieces due to its highly original plot; the only complaint that I have with this adaptation is how they fail to include anything about the nursery rhyme! “This Little Piggy” was mentioned extensively in the novel, with each “piggy” representing one suspect and his activities on the day of the murder.

A greatly recommended movie altogether; beautifully made with the little details reflecting the mood of the story wonderfully. It has the right pace from the start, but things get a little slow in between and viewers may find some scenes getting repetitive, especially when we come to the individual accounts of the story by each of the five witnesses. A convincing performance from all the actors; Aidan Gillen as Amyas Crale stays true to his character as an attractive, philandering artist while Julie Cox as Elsa Greer plays her part to an almost perfection, albeit the heavy makeup and Cleopatra-like hairstyle. A must-watch for all Christie and Poirot fans!

My rating: 4.5/5.0

December 31, 2011 Posted by | Books, Crime Fiction | , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Little Romance from Christie

Many of us are aware that Agatha Christie actually wrote several romance novels under her pseudonym Mary Westmacott, but I am sure you have noticed that her usual whodunits are not all just about murders, too. For my special Christmas post this year, let’s have a look at some of the notable couples in Christie’s works. The usual warning to readers: Spoilers ahead!

1. Tommy & Tuppence Beresford.

First appearance: The Secret Adversary (1922)

Probably the most famous couple to date in Christie’s works. There are altogether four titles dedicated to this pair, and whenever the story involves them we can expect lots of incoming adventure and comedy! Most (if not all) the time they are involved in espionage attempts instead of cold-blooded murder cases, so I guess this is a way for Christie to infuse variety into her work. The couple appeared last in Postern of Fate (1973), the last novel written by Christie before her demise.

2. Arthur Hastings & Dulcie Duveen

First appearance: Murder on the Links (1923)

This is the first Christie book that I read, and judging from my craze for her whodunits today you can say this title really made an impression on me! Poirot and Captain Hastings are off to the south of France to investigate a case of blackmail and subsequently murder. A fated meeting on a train between Hastings and his wife-to-be (whom he calls Cinderella) sets off a chain of events, and love blossoms in the end. They had four children altogether; Hastings appeared last in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case.

3. Anne Beddingfield & John Eardsley (alias Harry Rayburn)

Appear in: The Man in the Brown Suit (1924)

Here is another of Christie’s “adventure and romance” titles, albeit being a little too dramatic for my tastes, perhaps. Anne Beddingfield has always yearned for adventure in her life. After the passing of her famous archaeologist father, she decides to pursue a clue left at the scene of a murder and books a passage on Kilmorden Castle to Cape Town, where she meets Harry Rayburn. From there on it is non-stop action and drama; a very refreshing read indeed.

4. Major John Despard & Rhoda Dawes

First appearance: Cards on the Table (1936)

Definitely one of Christie’s best years, three of her famous works were published in 1936: The A.B.C. Murders, Murder in Mesopotamia, and Cards on the Table, which has always been one of my personal favourites. Major Despard is one of the suspects in the murder of the illustrious Mr. Shaitana, a famous collector who also happens to collect “murderers who got away with their crimes”. However, it is interesting to note that the ending in the 2005 movie adaptation is significantly different as Major Despard ended up with Anne Meredith instead. Major Despard & Rhoda appeared last in The Pale Horse (1961), being happily married by that time.

5. Jacqueline de Bellefort & Simon Doyle

Appear in: Death on the Nile (1937)

Yet another of Christie’s popular works, albeit one with a tragic ending. But perhaps it was the best way out for both Jacqueline & Simon, who planned the murder of the beautiful heiress Linnet Ridgeway while on a cruise on the Nile River. Poirot solved the mystery in the end, revealing their near flawless plan to kill Linnet Ridgeway to obtain her money; however he allowed Jacqueline to kill herself and Simon to avoid an unpleasant death should they be taken to the court.

6. Raymond Boynton & Dr. Sarah King

Appear in: Appointment with Death (1938)

While on a holiday to Jurusalem and Petra, Poirot gets involved in an exciting murder case but with no way of proving that it was a murder. The Boyntons are a strange family with seemingly dark secrets behind them, and it appears that the members may have been collaborating to get rid of their tyrannical stepmother by injecting her with a lethal dose of digitoxin. However, there are more facts to the case that Poirot will need to solve first before he can decide who the real culprit was. The story ends satisfactorily with two other couples tying the knot; Carol Boynton with Jefferson Cope, and Ginevra Boynton with Dr. Gerard. However, the 2008 movie adaptation is a little awkward to watch, as Ginevra is revealed to be Dr. Gerard’s daughter in the end (but not in the novel though!)

7. Philip Lombard & Vera Elizabeth Claythorne

Appear in: And Then There Were None (1939)

Officially not a couple in the original plot for the book, since both of them died as predicted by the mastermind killer, Justice Wargrave. Philip, the ninth (actually eighth) surviving member of the group, was shot to death by Vera, who then proceeded to hang herself out of her feeling of guilt. However, this ending was deemed too tragic thus it was altered by Christie herself for the stage, where Philip and Vera became the only surviving members and lived happily ever after.

8. Elinor Katherine Carlisle & Dr. Peter Lord

Appear in: Sad Cypress (1940)

I must confess that this is my favourite couple up to today. Poirot takes the centre stage again here, where he successfully defended Elinor Carlisle on the charge of murdering her elderly aunt, Mrs Welshman and Elinor’s love rival, Mary Gerrard. Elinor was sentenced to death for her apparent role in the crimes, but Dr. Lord was in love with her and brought in Hercule Poirot to have her acquitted at all costs. The 2003 movie adaptation ends just as great; altogether a greatly recommended title.

9. Victoria Jones & Richard Baker

Appear in: They Came to Baghdad (1951)

This story is often compared to The Man in the Brown Suit due to their similar settings and themes; most action takes place in the Middle East with the main themes being adventure and romance. Not to forget espionage and British secret agents too, of course. The heroine here is a young lady with the name of Victoria Jones; recently out of her job, she decides to follow a man whom she falls in love with to Baghdad. Nothing much is known about this mysterious stranger other than his first name, Edward. Once there, things start going out of hand when another mystery man drops dead in Victoria’s room. Her exciting adventure concludes when Victoria finds love in the unlikely hero of the story; the archaeologist Richard Baker.

10. Dr. Arthur Calgary & Hester Argyle

Appear in: Ordeal by Innocence (1958)

One of Christie’s personal favourites, Ordeal has one of the best psychological plots she has ever written, rivalled only by the likes of And Then There Were None and Crooked House. Arthur Calgary plays the hero of the story, unmasking the real culprit in a murder committed two years ago. In the process he saves Hester Argyle, whom others believed to be guilty of the crime.

And that concludes my Christie reviews for 2011. I would like to thank all readers for your time to read my posts, and have a very Merry Christmas among your loved ones!

December 18, 2011 Posted by | Books, Crime Fiction | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Clocks

The Clocks

Published: 1963

Genre: Crime fiction, adventure, espionage

One of Poirot’s less outstanding cases, The Clocks contains actually two mysteries. A part of the story details the adventure of the main character, Colin Lamb, who was hunting a spy suspected of leaking secrets to England’s enemies. While following a clue in Wilbraham Crescent, he gets himself involved in a murder case when a young woman, Sheila Webb, encounters a corpse in a house and runs out screaming. The murder scene was bizarre; the body was found in house number 19 where a blind old lady lives, and there were four clocks in the room, all set to 4.13 p.m.

Poirot, who was growing old and restless in his house, was presented with the case by Lamb. Things were made complicated when nobody manages to identify the victim, and when a second body turns up. Poirot correctly deduces that the complex set-up of the crime scene must be for only one purpose; that is to cover up a relatively simple crime.

Overall, The Clocks fails to impress me. However, the plot and settings are promising in the beginning; the complicated set-up with four clocks and a blind lady in the house, as well as the dramatic discovery of the body, are highly exciting to readers. It was obvious that the whole scene was planned and arranged by someone, but who? Can the murder be as “simple” as Poirot claims? The list of suspects in this story is quite long; readers will have to pay close attention to the witnesses’ accounts to spot who was lying, and the significance of it. To be honest, I do not think this is a mystery that can be solved by readers themselves; unlike her other works, Christie did not give much hints this time. I had high expectations for this story, but got slightly disappointed with the conclusion. Still, recommendable for fans of Poirot who are looking for more after reading his more famous cases.

My rating: 3.5/5.0

November 6, 2011 Posted by | Books, Crime Fiction | , , , , | Leave a comment

Poirot series, Part three

Here is another review on Agatha Christie’s Poirot series, in addition to my two previous posts. This time, I decided to watch Christie’s short story adaptations instead of the major titles which she is so well-known for, because anything with Hercule Poirot is bound to be enjoyable, right?

1. The Yellow Iris

Season 5, Episode 3. Original air date: 31 January 1993.

One cannot help but to compare this title to its more famous counterpart, Sparkling Cyanide (Remembered Death). Sparkling Cyanide is an expansion of Yellow Iris, where it was written as a full novel with more characters involved, a different motive for crime, and a much more elaborate plot (and necessarily, more bodies!). Asked which one would I prefer, I cannot give an answer to that; both titles are so similar yet so different in their own ways.

Two years ago, while travelling to Argentine Poirot got himself involved in a murder-suicide case in a famous restaurant. A dinner for six on a table turned into a nightmare when one of them, the beautiful Iris Russell, drank a champagne laced with potassium cyanide and died on the spot. A vial of the poison was found in her purse so the official verdict given was suicide; however, the family members were dissatisfied and insisted it was murder. Poirot was prevented from investigating the case when he was arrested by the local police during a coup d’etat, accused of espionage and subsequently “deported from the country like a common criminal!”.

Poirot gets another chance two years later in England when the same scenario happens again. A dinner for six is planned at the newly opened local restaurant on Friday night, with the exact settings as two years ago. Poirot received a yellow iris at his doorstep, as a “call for help”. And thus Poirot attends the dinner party to prevent a similar tragedy from happening, and the case is solved with a little help from Captain Hastings.

Altogether, a thoroughly enjoyable show with some humour, lots of actions, and as usual, clever deductions from Poirot. In the second half of the story the motive becomes quite clear and it was easy to figure out who the culprit is, but the method in which the poison was administered remains a mystery until the end of the story. Highly recommended.

My rating: 4.5/5.0

2. The Cornish Mystery

Season 2, Episode 4. Original air date: 28 January, 1990.

I must admit that I have never heard of this title before I watched this; a shame, considering I have read Poirot’s Early Cases twice. This story is constantly overshadowed by other outstanding cases in the book, such as The Affair at the Victory Ball and The Plymouth Express. In other words, The Cornish Mystery is an easily forgettable story, among the many Poirot’s great cases.

An elderly lady by the name of Pengelley visits Poirot, convinced that her dentist husband is poisoning her. Poirot asked her to return home and he promised to visit tomorrow morning, only to find out it was too late and Mrs Pengelley has died of “gastritis”. However, matters get complicated when the victim’s niece, Freda and her fiance, Radnor, seems to be involved in the case somehow. When the victim’s husband, Pengelley, announced his engagement to his secretary weeks after his wife’s death, he was arrested for murder as damning evidence provided by Radnor and the housemaid starts to emerge.

Poirot returns to the village in time to rescue Pengelley, whom Poirot believed to be innocent. I would say this movie is just average, since there is no solid evidence whatsoever to link the culprit to the case. All Poirot had was a signed confession from the murderer which was obtained by threatening him. The story ends with Inspector Japp shouting and shaking his fists at Poirot while eating a local pastry, much to the delight of Japp’s fans, I am sure.

My rating: 3.0/5.0

October 16, 2011 Posted by | Books, Crime Fiction | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Agatha Christie’s Poirot series, Part two

Continuing on my latest craze on the Poirot series starring David Suchet and Hugh Fraser, I decided to watch some of the lesser-known titles in the series, some of them which have never been published before. Here is a review on another three titles I have watched recently:

1. The King of Clubs

Season 1, Episode 9. Original air date: 12 March 1989.

Essentially, this movie is just a very short one with a very simple plot. A tyrannical movie studio director was found dead with a blow to the back of his head, in a room within his house where he was supposed to have a late night meeting with a beautiful young actress, Valerie St. Clair. Upon seeing his body, Valerie runs to the neighbours next door, who happen to be playing a game of bridge. However, all is not as they seem as Hercule Poirot is called to solve the case and prevent a major scandal from leaking. The title comes from the one card missing from the deck used by the bridge players. Overall, not a bad performance by Suchet and the others, but the simple plot and solution may be a turn-off for some fans. We expect a lot of cold murderers in Christie’s stories!

My rating: 3.0/5.0

2. The Dream

Season 1, Episode 10. Original air date: 19 March 1989.

The movie opens with an advertisement of the infamous Farley’s meat pies, much to my amusement. Benedict Farley, one of the richest businessmen in England who makes world-class British meat pies, sends a letter to Poirot asking for a consultation, but the meeting itself was bizarre; Farley describes having the same dream night after night where he takes out a revolver from a drawer and shoots himself to death. Concerned that someone may be manipulating him psychologically, he asks Poirot for advice; on the very next day Farley was found dead in the exact same circumstances as described in the dream. It may seem like a closed-room murder or even suicide to the police, but can Poirot solve this case in time to prevent the murderer(s) from escaping with Farley’s millions? Or can the motive be somewhat more than just money? Not one of my favourites either; but if you are looking for something short and light, this may be good for you.

My rating: 3.0/5.0

3. The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb

Season 5, Episode 1. Original air date: 17 January 1993

The fifth season of the Poirot series opens with a trip to Egypt, where a group of archaelogists on an expedition discovers an ancient Egyptian tomb which had been sealed for 3000 years. According to the local beliefs, those who desecrate the ground will be forever cursed by the Pharaoh. When members of the expedition starts dying one by one, seemingly from natural causes, Poirot is brought in to solve the mysteries. Is this truly the work of an ancient curse, or is there a simpler motive behind these deaths? The only complaint I can find in this title is that it was way too easy to discover the murderer! After going through half of the movie, it becomes apparent who has the biggest opportunity to commit these crimes. However, the motive will only be revealed towards the end of the story. Recommended if you are looking for a good Christie short story; personally I like the Egyptian settings very much.

My rating: 4.0/5.0

October 10, 2011 Posted by | Books, Crime Fiction | , , , , | Leave a comment

Agatha Christie’s Poirot series

Recently I have been watching random titles out of the Agatha Christie’s Poirot series, starring David Suchet as Poirot. The series started in 1989 with Season 1, and is now currently at Season 12, as of 2010. Other recurrent characters include Captain Hastings and Inspector Japp.

So here is a review on some of the titles I have seen so far:

1. Sad Cypress

Season 9, Episode 2. Original air date: 26 December 2003.

When I found out there is a movie adaptation of Sad Cypress, I just had to see it. The original novel has a tragic romance-multiple murders plot that is easily understandable, and likable. Readers can’t help wanting to root for Elinor Carlisle, the beautiful heroine accused of murdering her aunt (Laura Welman) and her love rival (Mary Gerrard) with a fatal dose of stolen morphine. Then there is Dr. Peter Lord, the local physician to Mrs. Welman who fell in love with Elinor and tried desperately to save her from the gallows. Enter Hercule Poirot, and we have a great recipe for murder investigation.

Overall, the movie follows the story quite accurately. There are no major changes except at the climax, towards the end of the story where Poirot unmasked the murderer in the house  instead of in the court during the hearing. Elinor had already been pronounced guilty at that time and sentenced to death, but was saved in time due to Poirot’s brilliant last-minute deduction; Elinor and Dr. Lord then live happily ever after. This adaptation is definitely a must-watch for all Poirot fans.

My rating: 4.5/5.0

2. Cards on the Table

Season 10, Episode 2. Original air date: 11 December 2005.

One of Poirot’s most popular cases; as I mentioned before in another post, this title is wonderful due to the sheer simplicity of the murder itself. Mr. Shaitana, a collector of rare items has a hobby of collecting something else; murderers who got away with their crimes. Four such “exhibits”, each with his or her own guilty past to hide, have equal motive and opportunity to murder Shaitana.

The movie does follow the plot and settings quite faithfully, up to the last part where the ending ruins everything. The past that the murderer (Dr. Roberts) was trying to cover up has been altered significantly; although that does not change the motive for murder, it is still unsatisfactory that the story has to end the way it did in the movie. Another significant change is that Anne Meredith ends up with Major Despard, instead of Rhoda Dawes. But the most shocking fact revealed by Poirot may be that Shaitana was playing them all along; he sets up the party and then drugs himself to sleep, being fully aware that he will be murdered. It is a nice twist to the story, although I must admit I like the classic novel much better.

My rating: 3.5/5.0

3. Appointment with Death

Season 11, Episode 4. Original air date: 22 September 2008.

Set in an archaeological site in Syria, this movie deviates significantly from the original novel in more ways than one. The characters, settings, as well as the motive for murder have been altered. To me, Appointment with Death has always been a classic Poirot title; the exotic settings in the Middle East is very similar to Murder in Mesopotamia, which is an equally delightful read. Therefore, I am a little disappointed with the changes they made in this movie; nevertheless I would still say the movie was very well-made.

The most obvious change here is way the murder was committed. Instead of just a simple injection of digitalis to stop the heart, the murderer(s) carried out an unbelievably elaborate plan in order to establish alibis for themselves, before finally finishing the victim off with a stab through the heart. Also, several important characters have been omitted and new ones introduced, who play significant roles in the plot development. Altogether, I must say that I very much prefer the old version of the story, where everything is kept simple and straightforward for readers to enjoy.

My rating: 3.5/5.0

September 25, 2011 Posted by | Books, Crime Fiction | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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