The Mystery of the Blue Train Agatha Christie England, 1928
Continuing my way through the Agatha Christie’s, The Mystery of the Blue Train is up next. It is another in the series of Poirot stories, although this time without one of his personal narrators. Instead, each chapter hops between characters as we watch the mystery slowly unfold. A priceless and much coveted ruby necklace is sold to American millionaire, Rufus Van Aldin, who intends it as a gift for his headstrong daughter, Ruth Kettering. She is presently estranged from her husband, the philandering Derek. While she married him for his future title, he married her for money, and will be ruined–and lose his mistress, dancer Mirelle, as well–if Ruth follows through with her intended divorce. Of course Ruth is not blameless; she is intending to rendezvous in the Riviera with her French lover, the Comte de la Roche, a man Van Aldin knows to be a con artist. Somehow into this mix is added the newly wealthy Katherine Grey, also journeying to the Riviera for her first taste of wealthy society. But before anyone arrives at their destination, there is a murder on the Blue Train–and with such a mix of motives, it is a perfect little exercise for detective Hercule Poirot, conveniently on the train as well.
Although an enjoyable trip–reading in late February of what proved to be a cold, snowy winter, I quite enjoyed the virtual visit to the Riviera–it doesn’t strike me as one of the stronger Christie’s. Perhaps this is just personal preference, but I feel Christie is not at her best when swapping points-of-view constantly. Better the tighter confines of a single narrow viewpoint. Despite plenty of clues and misdirection, Blue Train also contains one of my personal pet peeves–the detective has knowledge related to the crime that the reader cannot possibly have. Although an improvement on The Big Four, I look forward to the better Christie’s I know are coming.
One of the earliest English language novels, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders relates the story of the eponymous (but anonymous) title character, who as a young woman without known family is taken in during adolescence by a wealthy family whose matriarch has taken a shine to Moll. From there many adventures and misadventures follow her attempts to make a better–wealthier–life for herself. It is a first-person narrative, and remarkable for both the voice and agency it gives to a woman and a relatively poor one at that. It purports to be an autobiographical narrative, in the style of Defoe’s earlier Robinson Crusoe, as well as a story of spiritual redemption: after a life of deceit and crime, mostly thievery (and bigamy, though Moll seems not to count that among her sins, which I assume means that marriage was much more informally contracted and enforced in the 18th century than in subsequent eras), Moll finally lands in prison with the likelihood of execution looming before her. It is her repentance–which she claims as sincere and the minister meeting with her believes and convinces the judiciary of–that saves her from the gallows and sends her to the Colonies (Virginia, in this case).
I’m not convinced.
Moll is a classic unreliable narrator. Granted, anyone telling their life story is bound to get some things not quite right–memories can play tricks–but Moll is open about her lies and deceit as she makes her way through life. From her first relationship with the eldest son of her foster family to her post-jail life with her final husband, she doesn’t just keep secrets, she constantly lies to do so. Although there is not particular reason for her to lie to her reader, especially in a spiritual redemption story, her history of deception leaves a nagging suspicion in the back of the mind–how do we know she is not lying now? That she didn’t fake redemption to save her skin? After all, even after gaining her freedom, she still lies and seems to have no compunction with doing so. If this is the case, Moll has performed quite the coup: the end of the story, after years of tragedy and suffering–for no matter her own character flaws and crimes, we cannot deny that she has incredibly bad luck–is almost fairy-tale like in the arrival of happiness and wealth. Which gives me pause in my doubts. Would a writer such as Defoe, in that era, really reward an unrighteous character? From what I know of the times, probably not. It is more likely I apply my morality (truthfulness and honesty) to a time and place unlike my own.
Yet at the same time, Moll profits from her crimes–money that enables her New World life (buying out her servitude contract) comes from her life of thievery. This also seems in conflict with expected “Puritan” morality. So what is Defoe really saying–it’s OK to reward a life of sin financially as long as you’ve confessed it? This may not be an unreasonable thought; rewarding confession and repentance are surely more encouraging to the errant than punishing the repentant. Or does Defoe rather primarily intend it as a critique of the society that in a sense forces Moll–and so many others, men as well as women–into the crimes she initially commits for mere survival? It’s so easy to fall into the trap of approaching the novel from a 21st century perspective, especially when I don’t have a full context for the social/cultural/religious setting. There is definitely a critique going on, though, and that may outweigh concerns of morality in rewarding Moll–not for repentance but survival.
There really is so much to dig into in Moll Flanders, so many ways to approach or think about. I didn’t find it the easiest novel to get through–there is a complete lack of chapter or section divisions, combined with a steady first-person narrative in a more archaic style, without even conversation to break it up–but there is plenty to it, both in events and elements to consider. It is unlike most other novels (all?) I’ve yet read, but perhaps a wider contextual understanding (of the society/culture/history, as well as literature) would even further reward my understanding. Reading paths for future consideration…
After the cleverness of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, its successor, The Big Four comes as a bit of a surprise. No small town or manor house mystery novel, it is presents a tale of international intrigue, presenting Hercule Poirot’s attempts to bring down a major crime syndicate, represented by devious criminals from the US, France, China, and England who always seem to be just ahead of the famous Belgian detective. Hastings makes a return to narration, and we find ourselves chasing along with the pair as they attempt to head off “the Big Four’s” ever-masterful plots. It is almost a Sherlock-vs-Moriarty adventuring.
The premise appears promising; however, I unfortunately found it the least compelling of Christie’s mysteries to this point. It seemed to me it was more a series of mediocre short stories in search of a unifying plot. Only after finishing did I learn that the chapters actually did start out as short stories, and the novel was cobbled together at a low point in her personal life when writing was difficult. A bit of a disappointment, really.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd Agatha Christie England, 1926
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is one of Agatha Christie’s most well known and well-regarded mysteries, and on my first reading, my impression is rightly so.
It is a Poirot novel, but instead of faithful Hastings as the narrator–apparently he is happily married and living in Argentina–we are treated to the narration of Dr. James Sheppard, the doctor to the small town of King’s Abbot, where everyone knows everything and gossip is the local currency–one Dr. Sheppard’s sister specializes in. Not only are we treated to Dr. Sheppard’s narration, for who else to be called immediately to the scene after a murder than a doctor (and the police, of course), but to his sister’s sometimes insightful, sometimes wishful observations.
Not long after the murder occurs, the victim’s niece, eager to clear her fiancé of suspicion, hires M. Hercule Poirot, recently retired and living next door to the Sheppards. How fortuitous for Caroline! But more to the point, how fortuitous for the reader, for Flora Ackroyd appeals to Dr. Sheppard to help her in approaching the famous detective, and soon we have a Sheppard-Poirot pairing as they set off to investigate.
It is a mystery full of secrets and motives: money, love, blackmail, drugs. And they are doled out perfectly, allowing the reader to start to see the specifics of who is up to what, while at the same time obscuring the larger picture. Christie ensures that we aren’t able to see the forest, so many trees are in the way. And yet, once the final pages have been turned and the last revelations have been made–in typical Hercule Poirot dramatic fashion (though to be fair, I don’t believe Dr. Sheppard accused Poirot of being dramatic nearly the way Hastings so often does!)–the reader doesn’t feel cheated. Everything is there, or at least nearly so, if you can sift through to see it. Thoroughly satisfying.
Agnes Grey is unremarkable. Not remarkably pretty, or wealthy, she is home-educated and sheltered from the larger world, yet she has a hidden desire to see more of it. The youngest daughter in a respectable family, she is raised in love and kindness. Poor financial decisions by her father–in a foolish gambit to provide better for his family–lead instead to near-ruin. So Agnes seeks a post as governess, one of the few respectable options for a woman, hoping to contribute a small sum to the family coffers, and see a little of life beyond her village.
Agnes Grey is unremarkable. It is Agnes’s first-person narration of her life as a governess, in two different positions. It is to the point, illustrating her powerlessness in a situation where she is neither servant nor family, expected to instill knowledge and character in reluctant learners over whom she has no power to enforce obedience. Her position is impossible. And while there is potential is such a story–certainly, it offers a slice of Victorian life to a contemporary reader–the novel seems instead to me slight, or perhaps inconsistent. There is somehow a change in tone in the narrative as it transitions from the first family to the second—something that I can’t quite put my finger on to define, but that created a different feel to the reading between the first two parts. For while the opening chapters read as pure memoir, a non-fiction narrative, the larger portion of the novel trips along in the more customary manner of a light-romance. Neither feel is wrong, but to me they don’t blend well together.
There is, however, something very charming in the tale of Agnes Grey, at least once you get past the dry recitation of the opening chapters narrating her life up until the point she joins the Murray family. It is with the Murrays, though, that life is allowed to happen for Agnes, for despite her duties, she still has opportunity to meet those outside the household–often on behalf of a household member who no longer wishes to keep a promised visit. Agnes’s world opens up, and we see with her the happinesses and sorrows that accompany it. But though charming, I found it conventional (and perhaps a bit of wish-fulfillment on the part of the author). The conventionality of the telling, the lack of character growth, and the unambiguous moralizing (guess who gets a happy ending) diminish the importance of Brontë’s message. We can read it for the second-half romance, be thoroughly charmed, and put it away on the shelf, forgetting the messages of how we ought to treat one another, which ultimately is the most valuable point of the novel.