Ooh Baby Baby

There is no question that Agatha Christie is one of the giants (if not the giant) of crime fiction.

Agatha Christie was one of my gateways to adult crime fiction (along with Charlotte Armstrong, Phyllis A. Whitney, and Victoria Holt); if I remember correctly the first book of hers I bought was Witness for the Prosecution (which I didn’t know was a short story collection) and the first novel of hers I read was Murder in the Calais Coach (best known as Murder on the Orient Express; the former was a short-lived American title for the book, and frankly, isn’t an improvement; why make the title about something no one would know what is was? Everyone knew the Orient Express). I eventually read everything she wrote, with a few exceptions (I still haven’t read Murder in Three Acts or Death in the Air) but the first Miss Marple novel I read was A Caribbean Mystery. I always preferred Miss Marple to Poirot, but I kind of want to give a Poirot or two a reread; Donna Andrews made a very clever observation about him on one of my social media posts which provides another lens for me to read through.

I found a hardcover copy of A Caribbean Mystery somewhere since we moved into the Lost Apartment; I’m not sure where. I certainly don’t remember buying it on eBay (the only other Christie I have in hardcover, Halloween Party, is missing its dust jacket, and I think I got it at a yard sale? But wait! It’s a Poirot! And has Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s stand-in! Yes, that’s a reread for the new lens for Poirot! And now that that’s sorted…), so there’s no telling where it came from. I don’t know why it took me so long to reread it–it’s actually on the short side–but it did take me a while. Maybe because there was no urgency because I remembered who the killer was?

“Take all this business about Kenya,” said Major Palgrave. “Lots of chaps gabbing away who know nothing about the place! Now I spent fourteen years of my life there. Some of the best years of my life, too–“

Old Miss Marple inclined her head.

It was a gentle gesture of courtesy. While Major Palgrave proceeded with the somewhat uninteresting recollections of a lifetime, Miss Marple peacefully pursued her own thoughts. It was a routine with which she was well acquainted. The locale varied. In the past, it had been predominantly India. Majors, colonels, lieutenant-generals–and a familiar series of words: Simla. Bearers. Tigers. Chota Hazri–Tiffin. Khitmagars, and so on. With Major Palgrave the terms were slightly different. Safari. Kikuyu. Elephants. Swahili. But the pattern was essentially the same. An elderly man who needed a listener so that he could, in memory, relive days in which he had been happy Days when his back had been straight, his eyesight keen, his hearing acute. Some of these talkers had been handsome soldierly old boys, some again had been regrettably unattractive; and Major Palgrave, purple of face, with a glass eye, and the general appearance of a stuffed frog, belonged in the latter category.

Miss Marple has bestowed on all of them the same gentle charity. She had sat attentively, inclingin her head from time to time in gentle agreement, thinking her own thoughts and enjoying what there was to enjoy, in this case the deep blue of a Caribbean sea.

I decided to reread this book for several reasons. First, I am reading a lot of “cozy” mysteries (mysteries with amateur sleuths as the main crime-solver) because I am writing one myself; second, because I’ve been wanting to revisit Christie on a smaller scale (there’s no way I could reread her entire canon again); and third, because I read a piece recently somewhere (Crime Reads, perhaps?) about the enduring legacy of Christie despite some problematic aspects to some of the books (I was well aware of the classism and anti-Semitism, and VERY WELL AWARE of the various problematic title changes for And Then There Were None over the years), and this one was mentioned. I remembered the book, I remembered the story; I remembered that this was the book where Miss Marple met Mr. Rafiel and she became, in some ways, Nemesis to the two of them (one of the later Marples was, in fact, Nemesis, and Mr. Rafiel sent her a murder to solve from beyond the grave); but I wasn’t so sure I remembered why precisely this book was problematic, could be see that way. So, I took it down from the shelves, and started reading.

The premise of the book is this: Miss Marple had a rough winter, having contracted pneumonia, and her nephew, bestselling novelist Raymond West, has decided to send his beloved elderly aunt to a warmer climate to recuperate–St. Honoré, to be exact, in the Caribbean, or the West Indies–at the Golden Palm Hotel resort. (St. Honoré is, of course, fictional; I may use it if I ever need a fictional Caribbean setting) As she sits in the warm sun, knitting and observing the people around her–she is always watching–and half-listening to the pompous bore rattling on to his captive audience (this scene, and her thoughts about Major Palgrave being of a type who really doesn’t need anyone to really pay attention, but to just be in hearing range with the proper noises being made when necessary, is quite insightful and brilliant; haven’t we all been there in that situation?), when he asks her if she wants to see the picture of a murderer? Since she isn’t really listening, she assents and continues to observe and watch everyone around her, and as he is reaching into his wallet to show her a picture of said murderer, he stops, turns quite purple, shoves the photo back into his wallet and loudly changes the subject. This does catch her attention, and she turns around to see what he saw–but doesn’t see anything or anyone that could explain this behavior change. He then makes excuses and leaves.

And of course, he dies that night–and this incident nags at Miss Marple. His death is explained away by him having high blood pressure, and having drank too much on top of his medication; but she isn’t so sure. And then she makes up a lie about the photograph, which she tells the doctor, and it turns out the photograph is missing.

Obviously, the Major was murdered, and did he really have high blood pressure, or is that merely gossip? As Miss Marple observes, “it’s very easy to get a rumor about, and people will just repeat it. There’s never any first-hand knowledge; it always A heard it from B who heard it from C and no one can really pinpoint where the story started.”

It’s a good story, with lots of suspects and suspicious behavior and trying to sort rumor from truth, but two more people wind up dead–a very common theme in Christie is a murderer having to kill others to cover up their original crime–before Miss Marple remembers something and figures out not only who the killer is, but who their actual target was from the very beginning.

And yes, there’s some serious problematic views of the islanders from the British paternalistic colonialist point of view. But Christie herself never says anything problematic–it always comes from the mouth of one of her characters, who, given the time period, would inevitably think that way–side comments about how many of the islanders are in committed relationships without benefit of clergy; etc. etc. etc.

So, I would say it held up about 95% on the reread; yes, there’s some problematic stuff that might be jarring for someone to read now for the first time and would probably not be allowed past the editorial process today–and excising it wouldn’t harm the book in the least.

Age of Consent

I slept late this morning–I didn’t even, as I inevitably do, wake up at five and fall back asleep, instead sleeping until almost eight thirty and then taking another fifteen minutes or so to acclimate myself to the idea of getting up. It wasn’t easy, as my entire body was still relaxed and the bed so accommodating and comfortable, but there was simply no way I could stay in be any longer. I have, as always, too much to do and get one today and as lovely as the thought of staying in bed for another couple of hours may have been, it was simply not to be. But the sleep felt marvelous; I don’t think I’ve slept so deeply in quite some time, to be honest, and while you may not be as fascinated as I am by my sleeping, I did feel it necessary to comment on such a good night’s sleep for a change.

I was talking to a friend recently about Lolita–I can’t remember how or why the subject even came up in the first place–butthat conversation put me in mind about how we as a society have changed when it comes to the sexualization of teenagers by adults. I recently watched a terrible show called A Teacher, about a woman in her twenties who teaches high school and ends up having an affair with one of her students, and how this basically ruins their lives on both sides. There has been a lot of that in Louisiana over the past decade–there were two teachers in Destrehan having affairs with male students, occasionally have three-ways with them a while back–and it seems like these kinds of scandals break down here all the time. Teenaged boys and older women have long been looked at societally as not the same thing as the reverse–inevitably triggering responses from adult men things like I wish I’d had some older woman to teach me a few things and so forth, that whole “boys will be boys” mentality that still pervades the culture and society to some degree. This is something I may write about at some point, because it interests and intrigues me–even if it is a bit of a third rail, a dangerous path to follow with lots of potential pitfalls along the way. Teenagers often confuse hormonal responses as love–the whole conflation of sex and love that usually most grow out of it at some point–and of course, teenage boys are easy to manipulate because of their hormones. I think the primary problem I had with A Teacher was I never understood the woman’s motivations; it never made sense to me that she would be so self-destructive; they tried tacking on some back story after the affair was exposed which involved a difficult relationship with her own father, but it didn’t work for me. I also think back to all of the “coming of age” fiction I read when I was a kid, and how inevitably such romances/relationships were always seen as positive things, or depicted that way; there was always some inexperienced teenaged boy falling for some beautiful older woman who inevitably will take his virginity–going back as far as Tea and Sympathy, where the woman did it to “cure” the boy of suspected homosexuality, through Summer of ’42 (I also read the book of this, which impacted me with its tale of loss and longing, and how thirty years after that summer the now adult man still remembers her with love and longing; it would not be depicted that way now) to Class, which really does not hold up well AT ALL. There was a few of these in the early 1980’s–I remember another one called My Tutor, where a wealthy man hires a beautiful woman to tutor his son, they have sex eventually and then the boy (played by Olivia Newton-John’s then husband, Matt Lattanzi, who was stunningly beautiful) finds out his father not only hired her to tutor him but to seduce him (“make a man out of him” is how it was put, how it was always put)–but for a very long time adult/teenager relationships like this were seen as no big deal, at least in films; but I also think it’s pretty safe to say that this was also true societally as well; a father would tend to be proud of his teenaged son for fucking a teacher, rather than being horrified and pressing charges….I think A Teacher missed a beat there, frankly; by having the main male character being raised by a single mom instead of a single dad or at least both parents (or one being even a step-parent) they miss the chance to really address this aspect of toxic masculinity; naturally a mother would think of her child as being molested, whereas a father….that would have been interesting.

It is something I am considering for a Scotty story; it’s all amorphous up there in my brain right now, but it’s slowly forming.

And of course, if the teenaged son was having an affair with an adult male, the father’s reaction would be vastly different than if the affair was with an adult woman.

Yesterday I watched the film version of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, which wasn’t nearly as good as it could have been. The film came across as very cold, and also got off to a very slow start. It was enjoyable for the acting, which was top notch–and one can never go wrong casting Charlotte Rampling–and it was a beautifully done film; a very quiet British style ghost story (I really have been enjoying British ghost stories over the past few years, and now I want to read The Little Stranger, of which I have a copy somewhere), and the film has a very dream-like sense to it that is rather marvelous…but that same sensibility also keeps the viewer at a slight distance, which results in the viewer not getting emotionally invested in the characters or the story. (At least, that’s my takeaway from it.) It also put me in mind of Sarah Waters, who is an enormously talented, award-winning British lesbian writer. I reviewed her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, years ago when I still a reviewer, and was blown away by it completely. At some point since then I stopped reading her–not sure why, and I don’t think it was a conscious choice, to be completely honest; I think she somehow just fell off my radar–but watching this film reminded me of what great writer she is, and perhaps I should go back and read her entire canon, including rereads of the first couple of books–I believe her second novel was Affinity–but…as always, time stands in my way.

I also was thinking of revisiting some Agatha Christie; Catriona McPherson posted on Facebook the other day about a talk she is giving for a public library (I believe in South Carolina?) about Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie, which put me in mind of Christie again–sending me own a rabbit hole of memories of her novels–in particular my personal favorite of hers, Endless Night–and how I came to read Agatha Christie in the first place. (I picked up a copy of Witness for the Prosecution off the wire paperback racks at Zayre’s; I knew it had been a movie and I knew who Christie was, but had never read her and was beginning to transition from kids’ mysteries to adults. I also didn’t catch the smaller font words beneath the title reading and other stories; I thought it was a novel and was most startled to discover it wasn’t. So the first adult mysteries I read were Christie short stories, which blew me away. The first actual Christie novel I read was The Clocks–after which I was hooked. Remembering this made me also remember the great mass market paperback publishers of the day: Dell, Pocket Books, and Fawcett Crest. Almost every paperback I read as a teenager was from one of them, and I do remember those publishers very fondly.) I have some Christies here in the Lost Apartment,–I was thinking of rereading either A Caribbean Mystery or Nemesis. I always, for some reason, preferred Miss Marple to Poirot; still do, to this very day. I read the first few paragraphs of Nemesis last night, and was, as always, entranced. So perhaps for this weekend I shall reread Nemesis and some short stories, around working on the book.

Because I absolutely, positively, must work on the book.

And on that note tis back to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader, and don’t forget there are panel discussions for Saints and Sinners up on the Tennessee Williams Festival’s Youtube channel.

Greatest Love of All

So, today I am very pleased to announce that my short story, “This Town”–which I’ve shared the opening to with you already, Constant Reader, will be published in the Murder-a-Go-Go’s anthology, edited by Holly West! Watch this space for more news about the anthology as publication date approaches!

getPart

Pretty cool, huh? I’ve loved the Go-Go’s for going on nearly forty years now, and so it’s kind of cool to be in anthology of crime stories inspired by their music. And editors–if you ever do such a volume based on the music of Fleetwood Mac and don’t include me, I can’t be held legally responsible for what happens. Just sayin’.

And so many awesome people to share the pages of the anthology with!

Jane Wiedlin is writing the introduction! Eeeeeeeeeeeee!

So, yesterday I continued to work on revising the WIP and shifting the POV/tense, which isn’t as easy as it may appear on its face; it’s very easy to miss instances where past tense is used and needs to be switched to present. It’s also an excellent exercise for me, anyway, because I almost always use the past tense in my writing. (I think I’ve maybe used the present tense once, in a short story.) I also realized another short story I’m working on–“Burning Crosses”–would work better in the present tense, so I revised it into the present tense and revised it as well. I think it’s ready to be read aloud this weekend, which is pretty flippin’ cool.

And one more tweak, and my short story collection is ready to be turned in to my  publisher. Huzzah!

Last night, I reread Agatha Christie’s short story, “Philomel Cottage,” from her collection Witness for the Prosecution:

“Good-bye, darling.”

“Good-bye, sweetheart.”

Alix Martin stood leaning over the small rustic gate, watching the retreating figure of her husband, as he walked down the road in the direction of the village.

Presently he turned around a bend and was lost to sight, but Alix still stayed in the same position, absent-mindedly smoothing a lock of the rich brown hair which had blown across her face, her eyes far-away and dreamy.  Alix Martin was not beautiful, nor even, strictly speaking, pretty. But her face, the face of a woman no longer in her first youth, was irradiated and softened until her former colleagues of the old office days would hardly have recognized her. Miss Alix King has been a trim business-like young woman, efficient, slightly brusque in manner, obviously capable and matter-of-fact.

I loved this story when I first read it, when I was either eleven or twelve; it’s a classic domestic suspense tale: young married couple lives in a remote location, they married very quickly after meeting–after the woman inherited some money–and, in fact, she’d been rather in love with someone else but her husband just swept her off her feet. This day, after her husband goes off, she has a chat with her gardener…who mentions that he’d come early (on a Wednesday rather than his usual Friday) because he wanted to ask her about the garden trim “and since they were going off to London the next day” (sic) he wanted to check with her before she left. She laughs, and responds that they aren’t going to London; but he is insistent that her husband had told her that. He then also mentions that the former owner of the cottage, which they bought for three thousand pounds, had only wanted two. As she put up two to her husband’s one…she’s certain he must be mistaken. But in a masterpiece of paranoia and psychological suspense, Alix then begins to wonder, and starts putting together the errant pieces of strange behavior from her husband–each individual instance nothing, but when put together make it very much seem like he married her for her money and is planning to kill her…and she keeps finding more and more evidence to convince her she is right.

And the ending is stunningly perfect.

Christie, such a master of suspense and crime!

And now, back to the spice mines.