#204: “I’m afraid, you know, one does enjoy a bit of malice now and then…” – Yearning for the Golden Age in Agatha Christie’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968)

And so I enter the final decalogue of Agatha Christie’s works — from here to Miss Marple’s Final Cases (1979) — with a return visit to Thomas ‘Tommy’ Beresford and his wife Prudence, known (for reasons I genuinely cannot recall; someone will doubtless enlighten me in the comments) as Tuppence.  The Beresfords are unique in Christie canon in that they are the only repeating characters who seem to age in real time, and in doing so they provide an overview of Dame Agatha’s writing career in just a handful of books.

the-secret-adversary-agatha-christie-6We first met Tommy and Tuppence in Christie’s second novel, The Secret Adversary (1922).  There, drunk on the fun of adventure and shenanigans, they were swept up in international intrigue with more than a dash of Bright Young Thing and rich in their youthful author’s joie de vivre, with a world of potential and ideas ahead of her.  They next appeared in 1929’s Partners in Crime, by which time Christie’s brain was doubtless a-seethe with plots and potential, and so we got a series of short stories where they took on cases in a pastiche of various contemporary detectives, as if Christie was keen to show how easily she could play the game in any voice she chose.

cace56c1e3f0e95fc71d2d85b4927f3bTwelve years elapsed, in which Christie wrote many of her finest books, and then N or M? (1941) found author and characters both surrounded by young pretenders muscling in on what had previously been their forte, but still eager to show that they could hold their own.  It falls rather more in the ‘thriller with detective interruptions’ style, but the opening pages in which Tommy and Tuppence reflect on their perceived uselessness in light of a world where there’s plenty of youth coming through to replace them and their previous activities count for very little have a piquancy that is hard to ignore.  I also find it interesting that this was the only book Christie wrote during the Second World War that made explicit use of wartime activities — though, you’re correct, she would later use the Blitz as the background for elements of the Poirot tale Taken at the Flood (1948).

Then nothing for 27 years.  Not from Mrs. Mallowan — she was very busy indeed, challenging and surprising left, right, and sometimes centre — but without a sign of the Beresfords, who were gently growing older without anything worth reporting happening to them.  And then, dedicated to “the many readers in this and other countries who write to me asking What has happened to Tommy and Tuppence?“, we get By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968), and then five years later they would be the focus of the final novel Christie would ever write in Postern of Fate (1973) — so don’t tell me that she didn’t hold these characters in no small affection and that they, like Jane Marple, wouldn’t come to mean more to Christie as she aged and was able to reflect upon this in her writing.

We are reintroduced to them:

…sitting at the breakfast table.  They were an ordinary couple.  Hundreds of elderly couples just like them were having breakfast all over England at that particular moment. … A pleasant couple, but nothing remarkable about them.  So an onlooker would have said.  If the onlooker had been young, he or she would have added “Oh, yes, quite pleasant, but deadly dull of course, like all old people.”

by-the-pricking-4And yet are they so ordinary?  Tommy is soon out of the picture giving a secret briefing to a secret security council and it’s Tuppence who is living in hope of some return to their previous adventures — “Perhaps we could save lives and do something useful.  Useful and at the same time exciting” — and who ends up making the frankly giant leap into an investigation which kick starts this rather leisurely attempt to revisit that old magic.  It is Tuppence who seeks for things to be like they were before, in spite of the clear evidence that time is moving on: old people getting fancies “from the TV”, the use of the railway to get around being “few and far between” following the rise of the motor car (how novel such a thing used to be!), even Albert — previous, youthful partner in crime, now employed as the Beresfords’ “man” — has been on holiday to Spain.  We’re a long way from the exclusive six-person plane flight of Destination Unknown (1954) or the exotic holiday island in the south of England from Evil Under the Sun (1941).  That time, that milieu of the Golden Age, is well and truly behind us.

I’m not saying that the Golden Age of detective fiction ended in 1968 — it was over before then, even if the precise dates are somewhat disputed among those in the know.  My point is instead that these most Christie of characters — and Christie that most Golden Age of authors — are clearly out of their element here, and it’s a cause for reflection upon the very elements that defined so much of Christie’s career.  The name Agatha Christie conjures up images of bodies in libraries, of grass stains on the knees of a baronet’s trousers, of wealthy families gathered in drawing rooms, of tidy sleuths inveigling their way into the confidences and revelations of people who would rather not share, all against a bucolic background of violence viewed in only the most crepuscular terms and settings.

by-the-pricking-2The name ‘Agatha Christie’ does not conjure to mind images of residential care homes, unless Miss Marple is interred there on some false pretence, creeping from room to room at night to discover the truth behind the poisonings of which her close friend has been accused.  There is also no chance of Christie bringing to mind such paper-thin excuses to launch head first into an investigation as is seized upon by Tuppence herein; indeed, for well over half the book, Tuppence herself isn’t really sure what she’s doing, looking for, likely to uncover, or trying to achieve.  For all Christie’s flaws, you never questioned the intent behind her plotting: someone was murdered, or something was stolen, or someone accused of a crime they claim not to have committed, and someone else was brought in to investigate and provide a luculent perspective on proceedings.  Here what we have is tenuous at best, a clear case of someone wishing to manufacture a mystery out of a situation where most people even in fiction would dismiss it and move on with their lives, no matter how ordinary.  But, in a way, I don’t feel Christie is entirely to blame for this.

That dedication at the start of the book promises us the return of Tommy and Tuppence with “spirit unquenched”.  I’m not going to claim that the characters are capable of acting independently of the author — that way lies madness — but rather that the spirit of adventure that remains so firmly established in the Beresford bosom would inevitably jump on such slender chance.  The Tommy and Tuppence books were never tightly-plotted clue-fests where it turns out that because the bottle fell of the mantle at 3:07 am, heard clearly in the next room but not in the room below, this meant Sir Wilbermuffin had obviously taken a sleeping draught and so his wife could creep in and murder him; there was always an element of the uncertain in the cases Tommy and Tuppence took on, as if Christie herself enjoyed plotting something less rigorous that could nevertheless spring into action when required.

Pricking Thumbs APBSo, see, picking this up and wanting it to be Christie at her most paradoxical is a fool’s errand; yes, she defines the Golden Age, but that doesn’t mean everything she wrote will be in that same style, and writing a novel of detection set by the standards of 1937 — officially the most Golden Age year, no arguments — in 1968 would be folly personified.  Yes, we want that; yes, Tuppence wants that; hell, even Christie would probably want that — another Death on the Nile would have delighted her, and many others, I’m sure — but Christie is canny enough to realise that this wouldn’t work, and so doesn’t even try to write that kind of book.  I think this might be the problem people have when coming to Christie’s later works: people want another Murder in Mesopotamia (1938) and are disappointed when, after 70 books and now in a social climate that has steadily increased its disdain for such endeavours and brought about the maceration of detective fiction, that’s not what she produced.

I apologise for being a kibitzer, but if you want Agatha Christie to have only written books in the style of her 1930s output then you’re missing the point.  If you wish to read books that are of the type and style of Agatha Christie’s 1930s output, then you need to find some other authors.  I’m not claiming this is a great book — a lot of these later works need to be given some context in order to appreciate them, and even then there are unavoidable flaws — but it does invite more contemplation than her strongest works, which have the ability to stand on their own still, and will remain rightly admired without considerations of context for decades and generations yet.  Be honest about what you’re after, and then take a minute to consider what you’re likely to get, however, and you’ll be in a better place to appreciate what Christie produced here.

agatha-christie-by-the-pricking-of-my-thumbsFittingly, what it does provide is a bridge of sorts from the Golden Age to the more modern crime novel, relying here on a frankly astounding number of coincidences and some agonisingly athletic leaps in logic and common sense to push things forrader.  Hell, we even get some lamp-shading — “It’s very far-fetched,” says one character, immediately before the most out of left-field developments in the plot — which wouldn’t feel at all out of place in the The Girl on/in/with/without the Noun thriller about to be published to much hyperbole next month.  We’re standing with a foot in both camps, but the weight very much on the more modern leg: homes that have yet to be built being sold off a plan for exorbitant prices, greengrocers selling aubergines, posturingly fashionable restaurants with “phony French menus”…all the trappings of modern life, shaped into a plot from Erle Stanley Gardner’s plot wheels on a bender.  If they didn’t make so many references to The War as if it was a relatively recent thing, this could have been published yesterday.  And, no, I don’t mean that as a compliment.

In a weird sort of way, this makes those infuriatingly heavy-handed Christie TV adaptations make a kind of sense.  It would be entirely possible to use this as an  example of Christie being more of a “modern” thriller writer than she usually gets credited for — all the silly reversals are there, never mind that it stands in stark contrast to the vastly overwhelming majority of the rest of her work.  A quick internet search reveals that this has in fact been defiled adapted as a Marple episode in 2006, sending Tommy off-screen, replacing him with Aunt Jane, and having Tuppence “portrayed as a maudlin alcoholic who carried a hip flask and who was resentful of her husband’s success” (thank-you, Wikipedia).  Dear Agatha Christie Estate People and Whoever Adapted This Shit-Show: you are a fucking disgrace.  Such a cavalier attitude displayed towards the work of someone placed in your moral, legal, and professional care actually makes me feel sick.

I’ve lost my thread but I’m done.  Bring back the more innocent times, please; no wonder we crave them so compulsively.

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85 thoughts on “#204: “I’m afraid, you know, one does enjoy a bit of malice now and then…” – Yearning for the Golden Age in Agatha Christie’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968)

  1. “…his wife Prudence, known (for reasons I genuinely cannot recall; someone will doubtless enlighten me in the comments) as Tuppence.”
    The nickname is never explained !

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      • Tuppence is colloquial for ‘two pence’ – but as to an explicit reason for calling her that, apart from the obvious rhyme, eludes me… I suppose it’s hard to shorten her full name, since neither Dence, nor, Prude, and especially the latter, would work. 😉

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        • As for the colloquialism of Tuppence = Two Pence, see ‘Secret Adversary’ – though this may be a very mild spoiler of sorts?

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        • I think we’re into different generational usages here. Before decimalization, 2d was always pronounced “tuppence”; after decimalization, 2p was pronounced “two pence.” (For a while it was pronounced “two new pence,” to avoid confusion, but y’know.) Similarly, 3d was pronounced “thruppence” though usually spelled “threepence” or “three pence” (with “threepenny bit” being the standard usage for the coin). Similarly for “fourpence,” “fivepence,” etc., and especially “sixpence” — the accent for all these being on the first syllable.

          So “tuppence” was a very natural affectionate term — it was a word in daily usage. Especially it was applicable to children, since tuppence was a small amount (as in “that’s my tuppence worth,” with meaning the same as “that’s my five cents”) and so was a kid; but grownups would occasionally use it between each other — certainly my first wife and I did. (My second wife’s American, and so looks at me bemusedly if I call her Tuppence!)

          In Laurie King’s first Holmes novel there’s a hilarious passage where it’s obvious that King didn’t realize UK currency has not always been as it is today and, while explaining this damn’ funny UK money subtly for the benefit of her US readers, painstakingly tries to graft 100p = L1 onto her early-20th-century setting. (I gather later editions have been amended.)

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        • Who knew that the decimalisation of the cirrency could be so interesting?! This is genuinely great, John, and one of the many things that I love about these older novels, the casual and quiet way they preserve the memory and operation of some fundamental thing that will get quietly overtaken, replaced, and forgotten. I can’t say that reading an entitre book about the decimalisation of the UK currency would excite me as such, but that this sort of discussion can come out of the reading of detective fiction is a huge part of the appeal of both reading the books and blogging about them afterwards with people who know so much about the things that would otherwise pass by in the background.

          This is a very long-winded way of me saying: thank-you.

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  2. Really insightful post JJ, and a great use of the word crepuscular. It’s interesting to think that Christie would have seen this transition from the golden age in her own time. I wonder if she wrote much about her own experience of that outside of her changing books. And also, I feel your pain with these clumsy adaptations, Father Brown being another anger inducing parody.

    I’m interested as to which books were published in 1937 to make it the year of the Golden Age?

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    • Father Brown is an interesting one because it very quickly became clear that it was set in some sort of parallel universe to the existing canon — the changes even at a fundamental level to things like ‘The Wrong Shape’ are just…baffling to behold. I’m not such a fan of Chesterton’s writing, but it would be great to see someone do a Sherlock with this and take three or four cases and string them into a single 90-minute episode that does it well.

      As for 1937…well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Or do I need to collect together all my individual thoughts on this and attempt to justify this reasoning in another post? I just thought everyone knew 1937 was the most Golden Age of years and we’d all be able to agree on it and go happliy about our days… 🙂

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      • I believe the producer who did the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes for Granada was planning to do a faithful Father Brown adaptation in the 90’s, but then he died and the project fell apart.

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      • Your right about the Brown series, it’s just absurd. Even to the point that although he is obviously Catholic in the book, and that is continued in the series, they have him working in an obviously Anglican church building, wearing anglican robes, with a confession booth chucked in near the door! Its a total shambles even at the basic level of research/understanding!! I would absolutely love to see a proper adaptation, take seriously, with the theological discussions and high level plotting pushed forward.

        And in regards to 1937… as you know I am always encouraging more posts! Would love to see a 1937 one. (I’m still excited about the ‘how to get started with Paul Halter’ one you suggested doing!)

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        • The getting started with Paul Halter post exists: click here!

          I’ll attempt to put some thoguhts together on 1937 and see if it holds water — though bear in mind that I’ve not read as widely as a great many people who hang out here, and if I feel it may be mocked off the internet than I’ll sideline it and keep my opinions on such things to myself in future… 🙂

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      • Guess I am another person who hasn’t thought about the best year of the Golden Age. Annoyingly I am not good at remembering exact years when books are published but I’m happy to take your word that 1937 had some good ones. Favourite novel of 1937 could make for an interesting though niche Verdict of Us All post. And like thereadersiwarned I second the motion for you to write a post on why 1937 is the golden year.

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        • It’s something that sort of crept up on me since I started blogging, in fact, because — while I tried to be aware of the years thinsg were pub;ished — I’d never really put together the overall shape and scheme of a career by eras before, and it’s interesting how pivotla 1937 seems to be. But more on this (perhaps) later…

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  3. This is one of my favourite late Christie books and usually defend it at the drop of a hat for its fairy tale atmosphere and for being original and brave too in depicting out adventurers in their later years. Not sure this would cut much ice with you JJ but let me add to the affrontery by defending the excellent Miss Marple TV iteration that I thought, given the type of story and characters in thus book, worked very well indeed on its own terms.

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    • It certainy does a god job of being original, I’ll give you that — the fact that Tommy and Tuppence age in (sort of…) real time is quite the conceit, especially given the huge gap between visits and that, inside of this universe, Christie has given some thought to their wider milieu: elderly aunts, Tommy’s job, the kids leaving home, Tuppence’s enthusiasm remaining undimmed and just a little bit yearning…all good stuff.

      And while the adatation may stand well on its own terms, the fact remains that it’s clearly pissing on characters who are in no way respected or represented by a clear money-grab: when would Tuppence ever resent Tommy’s successes? When would she ever sink into near-alcoholism out of disgust or boredom or anything? It’s so wrong that — as a piece of legacy-handling — it makes me quite irrationally angry. But that is, perhaps, a post for another day. I am, however, at least pleased that someone got some pleasure out of it, Sergio!

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  4. Loved your take on this book and how to view it e.g. not by 1930s Christie standards. Remember liking this one but definitely need to re-read it, as a bit foggy on the details. I’m in a similar mind to you on the ITV version where Tuppence becomes an alcoholic almost – why they needed to put that in I do not know.

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    • I know, right? God forbid that they show a healthy marriage between two people who respect each other in their later years! ITVs desire to soap opera everything up was one of the reasons I no longer own a television, so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised…

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  5. The Christie estate has done worse than the Marple series. Exhibit A is the new Poirot novels and Exhibit B – need I mention David Walliams?

    I’m less averse to Marple as it does give exposure to the less popular (I think) non series books. I prefer this, fractionally, to new Marple tales. After all, it could have done worse than having Julia Mackenzie play Tommy. She was more convincing than Walliams…

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    • The inability to recognise what it is that makes Christie’s work so good has been a long-held prble with the Christie estate: alowing TVisations to add and remove characters at will, add victims, change motives, change killers…at some point, you’re just not telling the same story.

      And if they told the series stories well, ‘Agatha Christie’ is enough of a brand that the others could then be televised under that name alone: see Witness for the Prosecution and AATWN these last two Christmases — they’ve gone a long way to getting people more aware of and interested in Christie’s ‘other’ work. All evidecne suggests that it’s just laziness and pecuniary aims that have lead to these stories being so horribly mistreated; maybe Sarah Phelps alone will do enough to start correcting that… Guess we’ll see when the Crooked House movie comes out, hey?

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      • But you could make a case that the BBC’s Witness is a much different beast than the story that inspired it – neither of the endings are quite what Christie wrote and the plot deviates from the three-hander that she wrote – Toby Jones’s character who the dramatisation hangs upon is much expanded on and probably the hook of the adaptation. Readers could be quite disappointed if they go in expecting something like that on the printed page.

        It comes down to basically asking how much Christie-ness you can change before it isn’t Christie anymore? Does changing the gender of a murderer (and adding a lesbian relationship with the victim) change Christie’s intent irrevocably? Or the significant changes to Taken At The Flood, to name just one of the Suchet adaptations? I guess one needs to put one’s finger on what exactly makes Christie so distinctive from her peers – but that might take a while…

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        • That’s an excellent point you make about WftP; I suppose I view it as faithful because the central mystery has the same members, workings, and resolution, even if it was then augmented by lots of superfluous and extraneous material. Strip away Mayhew’s unhappy marriage and it makes no impact on the murder that remains at the core of the plot, or have him make a different decsion come the end and — so ong as it doesn’t affect Leonard and Romaine’s freedom — the essential purpose remains untarnished.

          But, yes, the idea of Christiness (or indeed fidelity to any source material) is difficult to pin down. While I doubt anyone is likely to disagree that the televisation of this definitely does not represent the characters involved, it would be a very interesting experiement to see how much change, and so what aspets of the plot, would still constitute a faithful adaptation. Hmmm, I feel a post coming on…

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        • No offence JJ (I hate it normally when people say that, but I mean it, so there!) but what you just said about the tinkering with WFTP (which i have not see yet as I was in Oz at the time) absolutely applies to the Marple version of the plot and characters in BTPOMT, wouldn’t you agree> Also, it is just me or is typing out the initial actually harder than the whole word dometimes . 🙂

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        • At a fundamental level, the characters of WftP remain true to their source characters, with additional motivation and interpretation of their actions supplied to give a sense of context and justification to their actions (though, as I think I said when I wrote about it, Mayhew’s feelings for his wife do come out of nowhere to allow this…).

          Where I feel — and bear in mind that I haven’t actually seen the BtPoMT Marple — the difference lies is that there are clear liberties taken by making Tuppence into a bitter alcoholic and three previous books establish that she’s nothing like that and wou;d be hugely unlikely, in Chrisite’s version of the universe, to turn out that way. I would no more believe that Tuppence would resent Tommy his successes if Christie wrote it herself!

          The liberties, as some might see them, with WftP are easier toaccept since we only know Romaine, Leonard, and Mayhew for 20 pages and so the efforts to fill out and provide wider character to them will work provided appropriate consideration is given to their lives outside of the limits of that story, which was done very well for the most part. What the Marple seems to do in treating Tuppence in this way is wilfully disregard the previous material onntyat character — more than enough to give a sense of her as a person — in order to shoe-horn in some brand recognition. To me, that’s a sizeable and crucial difference.

          But, as Brad says, Tuppence was a weaker choice than Marple for this kind of story anyway…but I doubt the people who made it put that much thought into their decision (I can’t prove this, however). It wold be better if they excluded T&T altogether, rather than pushing them aside in such an undignified way. But, well, I guess it doesn’t really matter either way, I’d be unhappy whatever they did!

          And, hey, no disclaimers about offence needed; we’ve been doing this long enough to preclude such insecurities, and I think it’s fair to say that everyone in this commune is here to discuss rather than have everyone just fawn over and agree with them. I appreciate being called out — could be talking complete crap, after all 🙂

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        • In Five Little Pigs the sexual orientation of one character was changed, but it was done very subtly and did not change the tone of the original work, it was still respectful to Christie and I don’t think anyone complained much.

          While in TBITL for example the changes they made turned the tale into a shrill, vulgar self-parody. One had the impression that the filmmakers had doubts about the quality of the material. We cannot take Christie seriously anymore, she’s so old-fashioned and like completely outdated. Let’s put in some lesbians and then we can have a great laugh about how modern and subversive we are!

          The characters of Japp and Miss Lemon were significantly expanded for the TV series. Like many other viewers I thought this was charming and didn’t mind it all. Now if Miss Lemon had been turned into a bisexual hacker with… ahem … a snake tattoo on her back and Japp had become a manic-depressive alcoholic would it still have been Christie?

          With Shakespeare or Sherlock Holmes you can do anything and it’s still recognizable as Shakespeare or Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes as an intelligent talking monkey or a cyborg in outer space would still work (okay, perhaps not for everyone), while it’s next to impossible to imagine Hercule Poirot on a space station or Miss Marple investigating a Mexican drug cartel. Their worlds are clearly defined by certain boundaries and I think if you change or modernize them you should do so very, very carefully, if at all.

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        • More than likely; for reasons discussed above I’ve tended to avoid the adaptations, however, so someone else will have to enlighten you 🙂

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        • The modern Marple adaptation switched things around and created lesbian killers for no earthly reason than, I suppose, to “modernize” Christie for teenagers everywhere! Bleahhh! 😦

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        • I was having a conversation the other day with someone about how much the sereis Sherlock actually rtepresents the character of Sherlock Holmes. I shall not recap it here — though I was hilarious and correct, of course — but you raise an interesting point about what makes a character that particular charatcer.

          Take Jospehine Tey’s Alan Grant and Christianna Brand’s Inspector Cockrill — they each have their fans, and many may howl at the following assertion, but I can’t really tell the difference between them; Tey or Brand, whoever cam second, could easily be writing fan ficiton (actually, that’d be Tey, since Brand is by far the better writer and plotter).

          Could we have Hercule Poirot in space? I say yes. Not contemporaneous to Christie’s stories, of course, but there’s no reason why someone with an intimate knowledge of human nature couldn’t be a detective in space…they just woudn’t necessarily be any use: the space setting would provide nothing for them, you’d simply be taking human drama from land and playing them out in a space station. This is why Sherlock works, because it lifts everything around the character of Sherlock Holmes and brings it with the character into the modern era as well.

          So you’re right, the worlds used lay out the boundaries that define these charatcers, but that doesn’t mean you can’t transport and update that wolrd to another setting and have it work….it’s just a needless complication. If you’re setting a detective story in space that relies on a button being found in a particular place in someone’s bunk, you’re wasting everyone’s time with new clothes on an old conceit. Once you require a charcter to possess knowledge they would not ordinarily have in the context of the world that provided them being brought along too (hence Holmes texting, or being familiar with the layout of aeroplane seats) then, yes, a huuuuge amount of care is needed.

          Thank-you; your comment raises a lot fo excellent points and has got me doing a lot of deep and quick thinking that my fingers are failing to keep up with. I shall probably return to this idea before too long…

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        • ” Let’s put in some lesbians and then we can have a great laugh about how modern and subversive we are!”
          In the TV adaptation (2006) of Cards On The Table, as many as 4 male characters were shown as homosexuals. Mercifully, Hercule Poirot was not turned into a homosexual !

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  6. Well, Mr. Wilbermuffin, you have introduced me to a new word – luculent! I guess it’s the adverbial form of lucidity, huh? Websters defines it as, “what By the Pricking of My Thumbs ain’t!”

    I don’t know, I don’t know . . . Like Sergio, I have a great fondness for this, but a not too distant re-read confirms that it . . . rambles. It wasn’t unusual for Christie to toy with an idea. Sometimes a short story turns into a novel, with mixed results. (I think “Yellow Iris” is a better puzzle than Sparkling Cyanide, even if the latter has greater depth of character. But one could argue that “The Case of the Caretaker” takes on deeper significance when it is stretched into Endless Night.) Other times, Christie would have a character audition a plot idea that would appear later (sometimes much later) in novel form. “Four people sit down to bridge . . . ” was tossed about before Cards on the Table came to life. And the “was it your poor child?” story was mentioned at least twice before BTPOMT. It’s a haunting kind of fable, and you can’t help but wish Christie had teased it into something better.

    And while the Marple TV adaptation is vomitous (that SHOULD be a word!) for what it does to Tuppence, it does illustrate what I think is a valuable point: this SHOULD have been a Marple tale, and that will become clearer when you read Nemesis. I love Tuppence, but she is breezy. She is not the person you entrust with a sad story. There’s something powerful going on here, a sort of feminist document about women not being entrusted to govern their own lives. Tuppence has to deal with that to a certain extent throughout, as each of the books about her begins with her being counted out as far as the proceedings go and having to plunge into the waters on her own. She could almost find a kindred spirit in Mrs. Lancaster, whose life was rarely in her own control, with disastrous results. But the light-hearted aspects of the Beresfords’ existence doesn’t jibe with the old lady’s story, so that the nice, nasty twist at the end jars but doesn’t resonate emotionally the way it would have done if Miss Marple had uncovered the conspiracy “against” Mrs. L.. Again, this all DOES happen in Nemesis, which, like BTPOMT contains a strong beginning and finish but (literally) meanders on and on and on through the garden.

    You make an interesting point, JJ, about Christie changing her tune from the tightly plotted puzzlers of the 30’s. I know she loosened up in the 40’s and spread her focus to characterization, but the puzzles are still, by and large, great in most of these books. I think she just loved to write those awful, spread out thrillers, and Tommy and Tuppence were a part of that oeuvre. Her last mysteries are the same, since the thrillers were easier to write. Hallowe’en Party suffers from the same plotting malaise. It takes the pattern from Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, tosses in some Dead Man’s Folly, and then hobbles the whole thing horribly. Elephants Can Remember becomes a drinking game of timeline errors. It’s shocking when Curtain and Sleeping Murder pull us back to the (post-1937) Golden Age and a Christie with a firmer command on plotting. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t think the books between 1968 and 1973 are a sign that Christie was working in a different direction. They are a slowdown of her powers and a tough slog, but there are pleasures to be unearthed within each of them . . . because, after all, it IS Agatha Christie!

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    • It could have been a very good Miss Marple story indeed, no question. However, I’m going to assert that it was made into one not though any acknowledgement of the thematic consequences of changing the focus of the characters into a narrative more befitting their context and rather because Miss Marple is famous, selling another Marple episode woild make a lot of money on this name-recognition alone, and they’d run out of barrels to scrape.

      And, yeah, no doubt Christie’s changing narrative style wasn’t an entirely deliberate choice — I tried to acknowledge as much above, though probably did so poorly with all the ideas I was trying to capture and get down — but I do also think the style of what she wrote previously was out of fashion by now. It’s not as if it’s possible to name a ton of densely-plotted whip-smart detection tales from 1968 in the same way it is from 1938. Whether Christie was deliberately adapting to this or not — and I take your point about her waning powers, you have a far better oversight of this than I do — she still finds herself with a foot in both camps, writing these “awful, spread out thrillers” at a time when that’s where the prevailing mood was going.

      However, I think you’re more on the money than I am: the omnibus, rag-tag composition of the ideas herein (and doubtless in the others I am yet to read) augurs rather more for someone trying to do something now beyond them. I am deeply fascinated to see how this plays out in the 7 novels I have left.

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      • Look at the next seven as a scholar and not as a fan and you will enjoy them more. And no, I am well aware that Marple was stuck into BtPoMT because there are only twelve Marple novels but there are fifty greedy relations sucking at the teat of selling out in order to fill their coffers with filthy lucre. Marple in Endless Night? Marple in Ordeal by Innocence or Toward Zero? Marple in the butchered Murder is Easy? Marple in the inconceivably altered Sittaford Mystery? Marple in the unrecognizable Chimneys case? There’s your 30 pieces of silver, Judas! Let’s hope the poor suckers enjoy because they wouldn’t get to see these novels if there wasn’t a series to hang them on.

        All I can say is, someone better get Crooked House, the Movie right, or there will be hell to pay . . .

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        • Marple in Endless Night?

          I’m a big fan of the novel and of the original movie, so I expected the Marple version to be completely vomitous (a word I too use), and was surprised to find it wasn’t entirely dire. By no means great, but whoever adapted it had used some intelligence.

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        • No, Endless Night isn’t horrific, it’s just weird. Having that sympathetic Marple presence lessens our identification with Michael as our eyes and ears and kills the original shock of the novel. Granted, the trick is a literary trick – the same thing happens in the TV adaptation of Ackroyd – but EN, the book, is genuinely creepy. The Marple version is not. But it’s not bad.

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        • Those were roughly my thoughts too. I’d expected to be throwing stuff at the TV screen, but instead watched a perfectly acceptable Miss Marple episode. It’d be perfectly possible to argue that it was a travesty of the book; equally, one could argue that it took the elements of the book and made something different out of them.

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        • Either way, I think I’ll maintain my policy of avoiding the televisual adaptations. Was thinking I’d give the forthcoming Branagh Orient Express a go, but they cast Johnny Depp and I abhor the man and so it’s up to Crooked House next…!

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        • I’m honeslty not sure how much of the above really happened, so I’m going to tell myself that you’re going for hyperbole and have nailed it perfectly…

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  7. It’s true, AFAIK, that the origin of Tuppence’s nickname is never explained. But I do know that if you look up “Toy theatre” in Wikipedia, you’ll find the origin of the phrase “A penny plain or two pence coloured”. For years I’d thought her name had something to do with postage stamps but not so; it was a form of theatrical advertising. There is a tenuous connection that contemporaneous readers might have known better than ourselves at this great distance; “tuppence coloured” might have indicated that Tuppence’s character was intended to be a kind of cardboard version of other literary characters. (As I said, tenuous.)
    I think there is a similarly tenuous case to be made that Poirot ages as his career progresses (mostly via the application of hair dye, etc.), but since Christie made the error of starting him off as a retired person, he would have been about in his 150s by the time of “Curtain” and grey hair would have been the least of his worries! (Even more tenuous.)

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    • Some nice theorising here, Noah — and, of course, a plot point of TSA relies on the word pronounced “Tuppence” having two different spellings, so I wonder if that was why Christie used it…maybe she only ever intended it to be a clue of sorts.

      The current series of Father Brown has a character called (I think) Patricia who goes by the sobriquet ‘Bunty’ — which has no link to the character or their name hat I can see. Part of me thinks people just made their nicknames up to please themselves; had to do something for entertainment amidst all the rationing, after all!

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      • I don’t remember if Lady Eileen ‘Bundle’ Brent’s and Diana ‘Bunch’ Harmon’s names are explained, but Tuppence is clearly a childish alteration of Prudence (say it without the R and reverse the opening consonants), similar to Pelham (P G Wodehouse) becoming Plum.

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        • Bunch and Bundle is a good comparison to draw — what with that and ‘Bunty’ I’m inclined to think that there was an era when a lady’s nickname was constructed along the lines of B-U-N-anything. Bunion? Bunker? Bunfight? Someone needs to be held accountable for this…!

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    • Noah, there’s certainly a progression of sorts in Poirot’s career, although it seems to come more from outside. He changes from the great detective whose presence raises eyebrows to “that funny old man who looks like a hairdresser.” Physically, Poirot doesn’t manifest any failings until Curtain, when he is overcome with decrepitude, but he does grow depressed as he feels he is no longer relevant.

      Miss Marple, on the other hand, seems far more interested in the world changing around her than Poirot, and so we see signs of that. I do wonder why Christie chose to ignore the Poirot she had set up for us at the end and slowly brought him to that state, but clearly this is not how her mind worked. Or maybe she thought we readers would have been too depressed watching Poirot actually fall apart.

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  8. the The Girl on/in/with/without the Noun thriller about to be published to much hyperbole next month

    Only the one? I’d have thought there’d be at least a dozen of those in any given month.

    I’ve often enough heard the word “tuppence” being used as a general term of endearment, especially toward children: “Hello, tuppence. What do you need?” Certainly the usage was common when I were a lad, but it was also around during my daughter’s childhood, a somewhat more recent epoch. So I’ve always assumed that this is where Tuppence’s nickname came from — and that Christie didn’t explain it because it needed no explanation.

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  9. I think this might be the problem people have when coming to Christie’s later works: people want another Murder in Mesopotamia (1938) and are disappointed when, after 70 books and now in a social climate that has steadily increased its disdain for such endeavours and brought about the maceration of detective fiction, that’s not what she produced.”

    Endless Night has already been mentioned here in the comments, but not that the book may have been Christie’s attempt at updating her Golden Age classics to contemporary times. It’s her most unusual standalone, with a peculiar atmosphere (a bit noir-ish, tbh), but certain plot elements strongly echoed The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Death on the Nile. Christie really seemed to find a happy middle ground between the standards of both eras.

    Sadly, she abandoned this approach after only one attempt, because, for all its faults, I would have happily traded By the Pricking of My Thumbs, Nemesis or Postern of Fate for another Endless Night.

    You’re not the only who called 1937 the best year of the Golden Age. It’s been many years, but I clearly recall there was a post on some website or forum (probably the GAD group) that listed some of the classics that were published that year (e.g. Christie’s Death on the Nile and Mitchell’s Come Away, Death).

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    • ‘Noir-ish’ is an excellent way to describe the tone of Endless Night, and I think you’re right that the deliberate attempt to alter what she was writing applies more to that book than to this one, upon reflection.

      Dammit, so close!

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  10. A bit off-topic here, but something occurred to me.

    I know you want to avoid the TV-adaptation, JJ, but if you ever want to do a blog-post demonstrating why, you should consider doing a comparison between 1978 movie-adaptation of Death on the Nile with Peter Ustinov and the 2004 TV version with David Suchet.

    By all accounts the former should’ve been disaster: the colossal miscasting of Ustinov as Poirot, Angela Lansbury hamming up her performance, trimming the cast of characters and somewhat simplifying the overall plot, but the screenwriter, Anthony Shaffer, respected Christie’s work and loved detective stories – even authoring several obscure, but reputedly very good, locked room novels. So it kind of worked against all odds and Christie’s brilliance was not dimmed in that adaptation.

    On the other hand, the 2004 adaptation should’ve blown the 1978 movie clean out of the water. It has David Suchet as a proper Hercule Poirot and I think it was even filmed aboard the same boat as the Ustinov movie, but it was drab and dreary affair. If I recall correctly, they even used blue-ish filters for some scenes to scenes, which take place under the desert sun, look darker than they really are.

    Yes, they had to make one of the dark, brooding characters gay and point this out by telling a flushed girl she was barking up the wrong tree with him, which, of course, had no relevance to the overall plot – except adding a touch of anxiety. Why not do it in tongue-in-cheek way that spoofed the 1930s by having him the board the ship as a bachelor who won’t let himself be tied down by no woman. He could have been accompanied by another bachelor friend and they could’ve taken the place of the bantering Mrs. van Schuyster and Miss Bowers from the Ustinov movie.

    But no, that would probably have been too gay for the mood they tried to create, which was the pure misery that dominates the modern crime novel.

    So, uhm, do with this suggestion what you want and sorry for the lack of enthusiasm in the second part. Writing all that down reminded me why I hated that adaptation.

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    • Well, I’ll certainly consider it — I do bloody hate the liberties taken in these things, and it can be difficult watching Ustinov get it so horribly wrong (I had to give up on his MotOE because it was so almost physically painful to sit through — it’s like the bastard love-child of Poirot, Fell, and Mrs Bradley)…but, well, what with my reread of Nile coming up for the Carr vs. Christie this may then make an interesting digestif. Thanks for the prompt, I shall start looking into it.

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        • But then the rest of his comment wouldn’t make sense: “it’s like the bastard love-child of Poirot, Fell, and Mrs Bradley” — hard to match that to Suchet’s Poirot.

          I think he meant Death on the Nile.

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        • Bah, see, this is why I don’t venture into TVisation discussions, because I don’t know what I’m talking about. I dinstinctly remember it being Ustinov at the start of MotOE, but some quick searching reveals that it is, of course, Albert Finney, terrible over-large mannerisms and all.

          My apologies; I shall get back in my place and stay there.

          The good news is that, should I ever watch the Ustinov DotN, he surely can’t have done a worse job than Finney does here just in these few minutes.

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        • I know I’m in a minority here, but Finney’s is probably my favorite screen portrayal of Poirot. (He won an Oscar nom for it, incidentally, although that’s hardly a guarantee of greatness.) The Ustinov movies are quite fun to watch so long as you forget that this avuncular detective is, bizarrely, being called “Poirot” by all the other characters. Suchet’s portrayal is, for me, essentially a sweetened-up version of Finney’s — a reasonable move, since you could hardly retain all the character’s rebarbative characteristics through a long-running TV series. Yes, I enjoy Suchet’s portrayal too, but with his twinkling eyes, etc., I’d say he’s not really Christie’s Poirot.

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        • I don’t dislike Finney as Poirot, John, but he’s so buried in make-up and an almost impenetrable accent that he is hard to take for long periods of time. The last section of the film feels like a twenty-minute monologue that, I hear, wiped Finney out, and his portrayal tends to take me out of the story. Suchet is gentler, yes, but then there is a part of the character known as “Papa Poirot.” Only when Suchet took over as producer and got into the whole “Catholic guilt thing” did it start to feel further and further from Christie’s creation. I will say this, though: Finney’s Poirot could operate on his own, while Suchet’s was built to co-exist with Hastings or Mrs. Oliver. That’s a point in Finney’s favor: he is a less social being, which I think is the curse of all great detectives.

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        • Did you ever see Alfred Molina’s portrayal? I watched as much as I could, but became convinced it was one of those deliberately po-faced parodies that became all the rage a few years ago.

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        • Have just watched some Randall on YouTube — it’s a…bold interpretation, certainly! And in Christie’s lifetime, too; would be very interested to know what she made of it…

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        • I would call Molina’s portrayal a joke, except it is so alarmingly anti-Christie, as was the rest of that travesty, that I find it hard to even crack wise about it.

          Tony Randall is a different matter. He’s completely wrong, that is true, but I was just a kid when I saw that movie. I was so excited to see an adaptation of Christie, even a terrible one, that I forgave a lot. Frankly, I was too young to understand how much they were mucking it up. I don’t think I could watch it today except as a drinking game with a group of friends.

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        • Suchet may or may not be Christie’s Poirot, but there’s something about the bits of him that I’ve watched that certainly stop him being my Poirot. He’s come closer than anyone else to date, mind…

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        • Ustinov is wrong for the role, that is true, but he is effortlessly charming and fits in with the emphasis on style in the DotN film. He is even more comedic in Evil Under the Sun, and nothing can say the dull as dishwater Appointment With Death, not even Piper Laurie and Lauren Bacall.

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  11. Sorry, in haste I expressed myself poorly. For

    “a reasonable move, since you could hardly retain all the character’s rebarbative characteristics through a long-running TV series.

    put

    a reasonable move, since you could hardly retain all the character’s rebarbative characteristics and expect to have a long-running TV series.

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  12. I hated the recent adaptation of WftP (in fact bailed out after the first part) but this is possibly coloured by my watching the wonderful Billy Wilder film at the cinema with my Gran when I was about 10 years old in the 1960s. This was probably my first introduction to Agatha Christie. It probably took as many liberties with the original short story as did the recent one but it was ‘my version’ as it were. I wonder how many of us compare unfavourably later iterations of something we have originally loved even if objectively they were as good if not better?

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    • Interesting question, Stanton! The first film version of And Then There Were None that I saw was the 60’s one, which switched the setting from an island to the Alps, turned the old spinster into a glamorous femme fatale and changed the way most people died. It’s pretty bad, but I loved it when I saw it. Later, I saw the much superior 1940’s film, but that takes a strongly comic tone to the whole proceedings. Some of the other versions are terrible, but the latest from the BBC is, I think, my favorite. So it’s hard to know.

      BTW, I haven’t seen the BBC version of WftP, but there’s no way it can better the Billy Wilder version. Yes, there are plenty of liberties taken, but it is a wonderful film and does justice to Christie.

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  13. So tonight we watched Tony Randall as Poirot in The Alphabet Murders, a movie that for much of its running time might as well have been called Carry On, ‘Ercule. There were two or three okay jokes, but by and large it was extremely embarrassing. It was, though, fun to see a whole gamut of the British cinema stalwarts of yesteryear, and Maurice Denham’s Japp, in a different context, might have been a definitive one.

    I kept waiting for Sid James to turn up.

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    • Yeah, the ‘bath-house’ scene on YouTube where the mirror is used to relfect the mouth of the other person as they’re talking is a lovely framing device but feels distinctly Carry On Detective (actually, scratch that — it’s far cleverer than anything employed in the Carry On universe; it has more of an Ealing tang to it). If you’d told me that another scene ended with ol’ Sidney going “Phwoaaaaarrr!”, I would not have doubted you!

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