Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2017 Evelyn C. Leeper.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/28/2008]

A TALENT TO DECEIVE: AN APPRECIATION OF AGATHA CHRISTIE by Robert Barnard (ISBN-13 978-0-892-96911-1, ISBN-10 0-892-96911-3) is an analysis of Christie's work. Unlike many books about Christie, this is no mere recounting of plots, but a look at the techniques she used, how her style and characters changed over the years, and so on. In short, it is a book worth reading.

And I want to note one chapter in particular, because some of what it says relates to my comments on various Christie stories over the years. In the chapter on Christie's thrillers (as opposed to her mysteries), Barnard talks about Christie's racial slurs against various groups, particularly the Jews. "These references were never removed in later editions, any more than the even more offensive allusions in Dorothy Sayers have disappeared from Gollancz editions to this day [1980]. Christi's American publishers, however, have silently edited them out, which may conceivably be good for race relations but is bad for the social historian." This is, of course, precisely what I have been saying.

But Barnard also notes that "things did change over the years. In the novels of the 'twenties one can be fairly sure that any Jewish character will be ridiculed, abused or rendered sinister. Even as late as the early 'thirties Christie can perpetrate a remark such as: 'He's a Jew, of course, but a frightfully decent one.' However, as she records in her AUTOBIOGRAPHY, about that date she had a meeting in the Near East with a German Director of Antiquities whom she describes as ideally kind, gentle and considerate--until the mention of Jews, at which 'his face changed and he said: "They should be exterminated. Nothing else will really do but that."' The remark came apparently as a complete shock: 'It was the first time I had come across any hint of what was to come later from Germany.' A more politically sensitive person might have sensed the rise of organized anti-Semitism earlier; might even has expressed shame at her own unthinking acceptance of repulsive attitudes. But at any rate from that date offensive references to Jews cease in her novels."

To order A Talent to Deceive from, click here.

Agatha Christie's mysteries:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/14/2006]

I have been re-reading a lot of Agatha Christie novels lately, in conjunction with listening to the BBC adaptations of them. I will not comment individually on each one, but I will note a few motifs that seem to recur. (I hope these will not be considered spoilers, since I will not mention specific books for them, or even any titles at all, but if you want to avoid all possibility of spoilers, you may want to skip this.)

I have listened to nineteen adaptations of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple stories. In these, one very common "trick" seems to be the serendipitous remark or event (eight books out of nineteen). By "serendipitous remark" I mean something like the following: The murder was done with an icicle, which then melted. Later, when Hercule Poirot is thinking about the case, someone else in the room wonders, "Now where did I put that doohickey? It couldn't have just vanished into thin air." And Poirot realizes that the murder weapon could have vanished into thin air, etc. (I made this example up; it is not one of the ones Christie uses--at least in any of the stories I read!)

What is strange about this is that sometimes this remark (or happenstance) is omitted from the adaptation. The result is that sometimes the key clue to the solution just is not there. The writer is skillful enough to make the other clues carry the load, at least superficially, but at times one does wonder just what made the detective realize that a key witness had lied (or some such).

Another oft-repeated idea is the mis-identified body (eight out of nineteen, including one book with two mis-identified bodies!). A corpse is found and identified--somehow--as Fred Smith. Then later, we find the solution hinges on the fact that it is not Fred Smith at all, but John Wilson. The reasons for the mistaken identification vary, but none of them would work very well today with DNA testing. Then again, a lot of older mysteries would be solved very rapidly when the CSI team discovered that the red stain on the shirt was red ink, not blood, or that the bullet was dropped from the clock tower, not fired. (I made these up too.)

Another slightly less common but nevertheless re-used idea is the false target (six out of nineteen). This comes in two forms: the victim whose death is purely accidental to the real murder, either as window-dressing or mis-direction, or the murderer making it appear that he is the real target of the attacks.

What this means is that while each individual book seems to be a well-constructed mystery, when one reads a lot of them in a row, it becomes easier and easier to solve the mysteries. All one has to do is figure out who the corpse really is, assume some of the deaths are window-dressing, and wait for someone to say something just a bit too out of the ordinary.

(Then again, I have also said that theme anthologies and single-author collections are also a mixed blessing. Trying to read seventeen dragon stories in a row makes the later ones seem repetitive, even if they are not. So reading nineteen Agatha Christie mysteries in a row is really not recommended either. Having said that, with PBS now running four new "Miss Marple" stories, I will end up watching them and then reading those books soon as well.)

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/14/2012]

I have commented before on various Agatha Christie tropes such as impersonations and intentional mis-identifications. Another one seems to be a bunch of people who were present or involved in a murder forming a team to try to solve it, but one or more of the people are concealing something, or have an ulterior motive, or in some other way are not what they seem. We see it in THE ABC MURDERS and in THREE-ACT TRAGEDY and possibly in others I cannot recall offhand.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/01/2013]

I have a new Agatha Christie trope to mention. Christie wrote twelve "Miss Marple" novels:

Of these, four have misidentified bodies, three have "false" targets, and seven have women who have married or fallen in love with disreputable or otherwise unsuitable men, this last being a trope I have not mentioned before. (For example, in one, the deceased husband had squandered his inheritance in bad speculations.) I mention this last in the context of the Miss Marple novels, because it is much less prevalent in the Hercule Poirot novels than some of the tropes unrelated to gender. (Actually, the Poirot novels seem slanted more against women, although there are unsuitable men as well. But there are a lot more Poirot novels, so I am a bit less familiar with some of them, especially those not dramatized by BBC-Radio.)

AT BERTRAM'S HOTEL by Agatha Christie:

NEMESIS by Agatha Christie:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/10/2007]

I recently watched the BBC "Mystery!" adaptations of Agatha Christie's NEMESIS and AT BERTRAM'S HOTEL, both of which bore astonishing little resemblance to the novel. Oh, Miss Marple was actually in the two novels. (Don't laugh--the "Mystery!" adaptation of BY THE PRICKING OF MY THUMBS added Miss Marple to a story that did not originally have her in it.) But in NEMESIS, hardly anyone else in the production is from the novel, the situation is greatly changed, ... even the size of the legacy has shrunk considerably. In fact, the only things retained are the motive (although somewhat modified) and the name of the killer. In AT BERTRAM'S HOTEL, whole subplots have been removed and new ones added, innocent characters changed to criminals, and so on. When "Mystery!" started adapting classic works, they seemed to feel some responsibility to stick to the original work, but that seems to be a thing of the past.

To order At Bertram's Hotel from, click here.

To order Nemesis from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/22/2006]

The BBC is producing a series of "Mystery" shows featuring Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. The first season included "The Body in the Library", "Murder at the Vicarage", "A Murder Is Announced", and "What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw", and were reasonably faithful. In the second series, though, they depart wildly from the original novel for "By the Pricking of My Thumbs" (ISBN 0-451-20052-7). First of all, the original is a Tommy and Tuppence Beresford novel without Miss Marple in it at all. In the teleplay, Miss Marple is added but does not do very much and was apparently put in just so they could bill it as a "Miss Marple" story. In addition, the teleplay removes large portions of the plot and motivation, and then replaces it by expanding a very peripheral part of the story. One normally expects the BBC to do a faithful adaptation of whatever the source work is, but in this one they did not. (It is true that or someone unfamiliar with the original work, the teleplay will seem fine, but that is a separate issue.)

To order By the Pricking of My Thumbs from, click here.

A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY by Agatha Christie:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/09/2017]

Agatha Christie is known for her intricate plotting, but if you re-read her works enough, you realize that she is actually quite sloppy, or at least reliant on coincidence to an extreme degree. Consider A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY (ASIN B000FC10ZW). [WARNING: SPOILERS] For example, what are the chances that the two doctors that Palgrave was talking about who, having both encountered the murderer, should then encounter each other and end up discovering they had both encountered the murderer? And given that, what are the chances then that one of them would tell Palgrave and that he would then run into the murderer--halfway around the world, no less?

Why would one of the doctors give the snapshot to Palgrave? It would have meaning for the doctor, but mean nothing to Palgrave.

Apparently the murderer covered his tracks for a while by spreading the rumor that Palgrave had high blood pressure. Really? He told several people in the course of a few hours the day before Palgrave is found dead, and no one remembers where they had heard about his blood pressure less than a day later. (It could have been the case that the murderer had decided Palgrave was a threat earlier, but then realized that the threat was more immediate than he had thought. However, this is not even mentioned, and we know if it were the case, Miss Marple would have realized it, because she is never wrong.)

And isn't it convenient that just the right guest happens to know both all about "anointing" and that the murderer has a motive for another murder?

To order A Caribbean Mystery from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/05/2008]

I finally got around to requesting from the library system HERCULE POIROT'S EARLY CASES by Agatha Christie (ISBN-10 0-396-07021-3). I'm pretty sure I had read these stories before, but I had forgotten that Christie's novel THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN was basically just a longer version of "The Plymouth Express". One problem with short stories as Poirot mysteries is that there is much less opportunity to introduce suspects, clues, and so on. (I am reminded of the--possibly apocryphal--story of the radio "mystery" show on such a tight budget that they had money for only three actors: the victim, the detective, and the killer. There was not much mystery there!)

To order Hercule Poirot's Early Cases/I> from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/05/2014]

Of MURDER IN MESOPOTAMIA by Agatha Christie (ISBN 978-0-062-07390-7), I have only two new observations [SPOILER ALERT]:

Christie jumps from Nurse Leatheran's point of view to someone else's point of view for two paragraphs, mostly to insert something more meaningful the second time through.

The question of how anyone could have been tracking Louise all her life well enough to contact her whenever she started to have a serious romance is never explained.

To order Murder in Mesopotamia from, click here.

A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED by Agatha Christie:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/23/2011]

Every time I read an Agatha Christie novel, or listen to a BBC radio adaptation of one, I find yet more flaws. For example, in A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED (1950) (ISBN 978-0-062-07363-1], Miss Marple tells Miss Blacklock that all the friends she had as a young girl are gone and there is no one who remembers her as she was then. Then in her very next Miss Marple novel, THEY DO IT WITH MIRRORS (1952), Miss Marple is asked by an old friend whom she knew as a teenager to help another friend, who was the third member of their clique back then.

And when it comes to coincidences, A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED may hold the record. There are at least three characters whose presence in Chipping Cleghorn is completely coincidental, the circumstances that permit the third murder are very contrived, and the way Miss Marple exposes the murderer is completely out of left field. But oddly, as with similar problems in Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, somehow they do not seem to matter.

To order A Murder Is Announced from, click here.

MURDER IS EASY by Agatha Christie (read by Hugh Fraser):

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/18/2008]

I listened to MURDER IS EASY (a.k.a. EASY TO KILL) by Agatha Christie read by Hugh Fraser (ISBN-13 978-1-572-70490-9, ISBN-10 1-572-70490-X) on a recent trip. Or rather I listened to most of it, and then finished it in book form after I arrived. However, this was a bit confusing, as the audio version refers to the old woman as Lavinia Pinkerton (even with a reference to the name-sharing with the detective agency), while in the book she is Lavinia Fullerton. I cannot seem to find any indication of when the change was made, or why. As for the story, there may be one level too many of mis-direction for the story to be considered elegant--or maybe not.

To order Easy to Kill from, click here.

HICKORY, DICKORY, DEATH by Agatha Christie:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/15/2008]

HICKORY, DICKORY, DEATH (a.k.a. HICKORY, DICKORY, DOCK) by Agatha Christie (ISBN-13 978-0-425-17546-0, ISBN-10 0-425-17546-4) is one of the more egregiously racist Agatha Christie books. Having the action take place in a hostel for foreign students makes it easy, of course. Christie seems to dislike Greeks in particular, this being just one of several novels of hers with unsavory or at least some questionable Greek characters (e.g., THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN; POIROT LOSES A CLIENT; ONE, TWO, BUCKLE MY SHOE).

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[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/27/2006]

I just read MISS MARPLE: THE COMPLETE SHORT STORIES by Agatha Christie (ISBN 0-425-09486-3). I had probably read most, if not all, of these before, but it had been a long time ago. What struck me most was how different the Miss Marple of the stories was from how she has been portrayed on screen. Margaret Rutherford was completely different--too large, too athletic, and so on. But even the portrayal in the 1980s BBC series by Joan Hickson is way off. In "The Blue Germanium", Christie describes Miss Marple thusly: "Mrs. Bantry ... fixed her gaze on the very upright old lady sitting on her husband's right. Miss Marple wore black lace mittens; an old lace fichu was draped round her shoulders and another piece of lace surmounted her white hair." Hickson dresses in a much more modern fashion, and does not ramble on about her knitting as much as she does in these stories. Admittedly, the latter characteristic does not appear in the novels, where Miss Marple takes a much more active role. The short stories, however, are entirely "thought exercises"--a group of people sitting around trying to solve a mystery they have been told. And even Christie seems to acknowledge that the image of Miss Marple has to be modified to allow her to be an effective main character in a novel. The Miss Marple of "The Blue Germanium" could never do what is done by the Miss Marple of (say) A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED.

To order Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/03/2006]

I read MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (a.k.a. MURDER IN THE CALAIS COACH) (ISBN 0-425-17375-5) because I had just heard the BBC radio version and seen the 1974 movie. There seemed to be some gaps in explanation in these dramatic versions, and I was curious if these were in the book itself. And, yes, they were. It remains a complete mystery how Poirot comes to some of his conclusions. (At one point, in fact, he just says "I sense a good cook instinctively" as if that made any sense.) Christie's stories seem to rely on something not just extremely unlikely, but almost unfair. (And she has at least three stories which turn on the intentional misidentification of a corpse! That is just pushing it.)

To order Murder on the Orient Express from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/20/2006]

PASSENGER TO FRANKFURT by Agatha Christie (ISBN 0-312-98170-8) is subtitled "An Extravaganza by Agatha Christie". This is Christie foray out of the mystery genre into the international thriller genre, and fails (in my opinion) because she relies on too many of the "tricks" that work in her mysteries. I talked in the 07/14/06 issue of the MT VOID about some of these: the mis-identified corpse, the deceptive murder, and so on. One I did not mention at the time was the coincidence, both meaningless and meaningful. A meaningless coincidence would be that the mysterious new lodger is actually the long-lost son of the local squire, but his return turns out to have nothing to do with the murder of the squire. A meaningful coincidence would be that the aunt in England of the detective happens to know many of the people involved in a murder that took place in France. PASSENGER TO FRANKFURT seem to rely too much on the latter. In addition, I think Christie works well on a small palette: a murder in a resort, a theft in a manor, etc. When she tries to write global conspiracies, she ends up out of her depth.

To order Passenger to Frankfurt from, click here.

POSTERN OF FATE by Agatha Christie:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/16/2017]

Joseph Major's letter of comment led me to re-read POSTERN OF FATE by Agatha Christie (ISBN 978-0-062-07434-8).

John Curran, in AGATHA CHRISTIE'S SECRET NOTEBOOKS, says that one of Christie's greatest gifts was her readability, and that "this facility deserted her only in the very closing chapter of her writing career, POSTERN OF FATE being the most challenging example."

I love the first chapter, which is all about Tuppence reminiscing about the books she read as a child as they unpack their books after moving to a new house.

However, I am unconvinced by her argument against the rehabilitation of Richard III. She writes, "Though nowadays they all write books saying he was really wonderful. Not a villain at all. But I don't believe that. Shakespeare didn't either. After all, he started his play by making Richard say, 'I am determined to prove a villain.'" POSTERN OF FATE was published about twenty years after Josephine Tey's DAUGHTER OF TIME, which somewhat demolished this excuse by pointing out that Shakespeare wrote under the Tudors, who overthrew Richard III and the Plantagenants, and based his play on historians who wrote under the Tudors, and were hardly likely to take Richard's side.

The biggest problems of POSTERN OF FATE are the repetitions and the vagueness. Some of the repetitions are distributed, e.g., the characters talk or think at least a half dozen separate times about how electricians never finish their jobs, but leave holes in the floors for the unwary to fall into. Others are more "compact," apparently because either Christie or Tuppence was having a short-term memory problem. For example, Tuppence says to Gwenda, "Beatrice told me that you knew someone once living here called Mary Jordan," and Gwenda says, "I didn't know her, but I have heard her mentioned." Then only a page later, Tuppence says, "It was someone called Mary Jordan I was asking about. Beatrice said you knew about her," to which Gwenda replies, "Not really--i just heard her mentioned once or twice." These are basically the same exchange, and this happens a couple of more times as well. Apparently Agatha Christie had achieved the "goal" of not having editors change anything she wrote, or even suggest there might be a problem. (A statistical study of word use and grammatical construction in Christie's novels indicates that it was likely that she had Alzheimer's towards the end of her career.)

The vagueness comes in when people talk about the past in circumlocutions, with references to "some people" saying it was about submarines, but really it was about "something else", and you have to see where the money was coming from and going to, and so on.

Someone claimed that the mystery was solved by having some random comment by someone give T & T the clue. Christie used this a lot. In one book, it was someone saying, "Same man, different hat." In another, it was someone saying they were going to a dress rehearsal. In another, it was an earlier observation about people lying on a beach.

To order Postern of Fate from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/13/2006]

I wrote in the 09/22/06 issue of the MT VOID about how Miss Marple had been shoe-horned into the "Masterpiece Theater" production of Agatha Christie's BY THE PRICKING OF MY THUMBS. For that, though, they at least kept the basic story. For Christie's THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY (American title, MURDER AT HAZELMOOR) (ISBN 0-312-97981-9), they not only added Miss Marple, but also changed three of the "Five W's" (who, what, when, where, and why). (I will not say which ones, so as not to give too many spoilers.)

To order The Sittaford Mystery from, click here.

TEN LITTLE INDIANS by Agatha Christie:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/16/2004]

And while we're talking about bowdlerizing, Agatha Christie's TEN LITTLE INDIANS has certainly been cleaned up. For starters, when it was first published in 1939 it was TEN LITTLE NIGGERS. The island in the novel was "Nigger Island", the figurines were "niggers", and the poem was "Ten Little Niggers". I'm not sure when the book was re-titled, and whether or not it was re-titled on both sides of the Atlantic; my British copy from 1969 still has the original title and text. But a recent United States edition titled TEN LITTLE INDIANS has the events taking place on "Indian Island", with Indian figurines, and the poem "Ten Little Indians". (This is not "One little, two little, three little Indians, ..." but rather "Ten little Indian boys went out to dine....") However, the expression "a nigger in the woodpile" was retained, probably because there was no easy way to change it.

There was another change made as well, though. The original text had several derogatory references to Jews in the first chapter, and these were taken out or modified to refer only to the specific character. So "That little Jew had been damned mysterious" became "Morris had been damned mysterious." And "that was the damnable part about the Jews, you couldn't deceive them about money" became "that was the damnable part about Morris, you couldn't deceive him about money".

I suppose this is all rather mild--after all, the Nancy Drew novels are apparently re-written entirely from scratch and the only thing retained between editions is sometimes the title. Still, it does tend to deceive readers as to attitudes in the early part of the 20th century. I commented a while ago on the anti-Jewish attitude in George Orwell's DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON, and one finds similar slurs in G. K. Chesterton's FOUR FAULTLESS FELONS and some of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Those have not been sanitized for modern audiences. Is it because Christie herself was still alive and wanted the changes made, while the other authors were no longer around to approve changes? Perhaps. But it is telling that the anti-Jewish remarks in TEN LITTLE INDIANS were apparently removed only when the derogatory references to blacks were removed. Clearly the latter was a publishing necessity, at least in terms of the title, and so it was easier to make the former changes at the same time as well.

[And more Christie quotes refletcing the anti-Semitism of the times (in this case 1933, when MURDER IN THREE ACTS was written:

A handsome young fellow, twenty-five at a guess. Something perhaps a bit sleek about his good looks. Something else--something---- Was it foreign? Something un-English about him.


Egg Lytton Gore's voice rang out, "Oliver, you slippery Shylock----"

"Of course" thought Mr. Satterthwaite, "that's it--not foreign--Jew." [pages 14-15]


"But if you ask me, the firm's not far off Queer Street. There was a Jewish gentleman came to see Madam, ..." [pages 116-117]

To order Ten Little Indians (a.k.a. And Then There Were None) from, click here.

THEY DO IT WITH MIRRORS by Agatha Christie:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/06/2007]

I have written before about how many Agatha Christie mysteries revolve around the mis-identification of a corpse (eight out of the nineteen novels I looked at). It is also true that Christie has a lot of live characters who are masquerading as someone else: siblings, offspring, spouses, .... Sometimes someone else will be in on the masquerade (similar to Doyle's HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES deception), but often everyone else is taken in.

It seems clear from this that Christie had issues with identity, and I recently noticed another manifestation of this in THEY DO IT WITH MIRRORS (American title MURDER WITH MIRRORS) (ISBN-10 0-396-08867-8, ISBN-13 978-0-396-08867-7). In this novel, Jane Marple is called in to try to protect her old school friend, Carrie Louise Serracold. But everyone calls this friend by a different name. To Jane, she is Carrie Louise. To her companion Jolly, she is Cara. To her granddaughter, she is Grandam. To her stepson Stephen, she is Madonna. To her husband, she is Caroline. And to her husband's secretary Edgar, she is Mrs. Serracold. Here everyone knows that all these names refer to one character, but in other novels, one often discovers that a nickname conceals a true identity. What this says about Christie I leave to the psychologists, but it does seem as though she re-uses the issue of identity more than just as a trick; one has to start believing that Christie herself had some personal issues with it.

To order They Do It with Mirrors from, click here.

BLACK COFFEE by Agatha Christie and Charles Osborne:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/23/2007]

BLACK COFFEE by Agatha Christie and Charles Osborne (ISBN-10 0-312-97007-2, ISBN-13 978-0-312-97007-9) is, like THE UNEXPECTED GUEST, a novel expanded by Osborne from a play by Christie. As with that book, this is shorter, more straightforward, and more predictable than novels actually written by Christie. If you're looking for a quick read, though, it will do the trick. (If you wonder why I am reading these, I am trying to catch up on all the Christies I have not read. I think I have read all her works written under her own name except for the collections PROBLEM AT POLLENSA BAY and WHILE THE LIGHT LASTS, and two stories from THE LISTERDALE MYSTERY.)

To order Black Coffee from, click here.

THE UNEXPECTED GUEST by Agatha Christie and Charles Osborne:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/27/2006]

THE UNEXPECTED GUEST by Agatha Christie and Charles Osborne (ISBN 0-312-97512-0) is not actually by Christie--it is by Osborne, based on a play by Christie. As such, it is much "thinner" than most Christie novels, and the solution is actually fairly predictable. Because it started out as a play, it has a much smaller cast of characters than the usual Christie novel, which in turn makes solving the mystery a bit easier. And because Osborne does not flesh it out very much, it is only about 50,000 words long--very short for a novel these days.

To order The Unexpected Guest from, click here.

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