Tag Archives: Agatha Christie

Closed Casket

I must admit I can’t work out what the four words are. Having finished reading Sophie Hannah’s second Poirot mystery, Closed Casket, I remembered her saying at the Edinburgh launch that four words describe the whole thing. You know, something like ‘the butler did it.’ Except he didn’t. I mean, maybe he did. I’m saying nothing.

There is an outlandish character in Closed Casket, but one I had no trouble believing in, as I’ve met someone like that myself. I wonder if there is one like that in most people’s lives?

Sophie Hannah, Closed Casket

In this second Poirot outing we meet an Enid Blyton kind of children’s mystery author. Very rich and famous, this woman changes her will, leaving everything to her dying secretary, which is a weird thing to do. And from that we have our mystery. Who will die, and who murdered them and why?

More so than in Sophie’s first Poirot novel, I felt this one gave more space to Poirot’s Scotland Yard friend Catchpool, letting Poirot work around him. They have been invited to the author’s home in Ireland, and while the house itself is fancy, the surroundings seem less attractive than we are used to in Agatha’s own books. Much less vicarage chintz for the blood to spill on, so to speak.

There is a whole cast of likeable – and less likeable – characters, and it really was difficult deciding who must have dunnit. In fact, I didn’t. I just let myself  float along, happy to let any of them be the bad guy.

Women

For International Women’s Day I thought I’d tell you about Rachel Ignotofsky’s Women in Science, as well as Ma Isabel Sánchez Vegara’s books about Agatha Christie and Marie Curie in the Little People, Big Dreams series. They are the perfect way for children – boys and girls – to learn about Agatha and Marie, as well as the many intelligent and successful women in Rachel’s illustrated book about female scientists.

But I’m going to tell you about Mother-of-Witch instead. For obvious reasons, newspapers have had more ‘women articles’ in the last week. And the more I read them and the more I thought of this special day for women, the more irritated I got. The Q&A with Gloria Steinem in the Guardian was better than expected, but when even someone like her can write about reading Little Women as a child saying ‘it was the first time I realised women could be a whole human world,’ I thought enough is enough.

It’s the kind of thing I never discovered. Because I didn’t need to. As the only child of a single mother I never harboured doubts about what women did or could do or were allowed to do. The whole idea is alien to me.

My mother had a humble start, but she pulled herself up by her bootstraps, achieving a lot in her life. For me it seemed so natural and obvious that I hardly appreciated her efforts. (I’m a bit of a disappointment, not following in her footsteps or anything, but that’s another story.) If it needed doing, she did it.

That’s not to say she repaired the car exactly, but she had a car. And when our landlord came to change the washers in the bathroom taps, she peered over his shoulder to see how it was done. Later on as a house owner, she knew what to do (while her male colleague barely knew what a washer was).

For girls of her background the choice at school was cooking or typing. She was intelligent, so was allowed to learn to type. The – prizewinning – typing took her away from her home town, and she perfected her secretarial skills and was doing really well. And then I turned up, so she took those skills and got herself a teaching job, passing on her knowledge to countless students at a sixth form college, while still being the girl who’d left school at 15.

So she could enjoy the same level of education as her students, she did some distance learning by correspondence, and when I was seven she achieved her goal. A few years later she got herself a university degree in much the same way. That was ideal for me; evening lectures meant we didn’t see much of each other, and for a young teenager that’s a good thing. We were also so poor we ate a lot of macaroni and pancakes, which I loved. I didn’t spare much thought to how hard she worked, or how much she worried about money.

Teenagers!

Her old boss, the head teacher at her first school, was getting old and wanted to surround himself with his favourite staff, so he designed a teaching post requiring such specific qualifications that only she could apply for the job, and almost overnight we found ourselves back where we started.

At fifty she bought a house, even though some of her students told her that houses ought to be for younger people who could ‘enjoy them properly.’ She changed washers as required and enjoyed that house until she died, many years later.

Mother-of-Witch didn’t need any special days for women. She needed a job and an education and a home, and she got it all. She also surrounded herself with lots of friends, nearly all single women, which meant that I grew up in an almost exclusively female environment.

And that house purchase; for the second viewing she brought me along. The salesman was dreadfully disappointed as he’d counted on a sale when she came back [‘with her husband’]. I’m still working on perfecting the look she gave him as he enquired about her lack of male company.

End of year miscellany

I did that sitting up in the middle of the night thing again. We’d finished watching the Agatha Christie two-parter Witness for the Prosecution on BBC, and I’d blogged about it on CultureWitch. I claimed I didn’t really know the story, and then – midsleep – I wondered why it all felt so familiar, and how come I knew what the plot twist was going to be?

Elementary, my dear Watsons. I’d seen it before. Quite some time ago, although not as far back as 1957, which is when the film was made. And then I remembered something else. The Retired Children’s Librarian had watched it and she mentioned she’d not come across the book, and I made it my mission to find the book for her. But could I find a single copy of Åklagarens Vittne anywhere? I could not. Some second hand bookshops even had waiting lists for it.

Apparently I gave up at that point, and then I forgot the whole thing.

Forgetting is not something St Hilda’s alumni do. I was incredibly pleased to watch Val McDermid and Adèle Geras succeed all the way in the Christmas University Challenge, winning by beating the lovely Leeds team. But Uzbekistan, Adèle? It was the middle of the Pacific!

Never mind. We got a women only team winning, even beating another women only team in the semifinals.

And then. Then Daughter let her ancient parents accompany her to see Rogue One in the cinema. Oh dear, the amount of eye-rolling that had to be done when it turned out we’d not understood any of it. The Resident IT Consultant was silly enough to ask. I was going to play it cool and say nothing if I could help it.

I saw the first Star Wars film back when it was new, when you didn’t have to keep track of all the numbers of sequels and prequels. I didn’t get it. It was nice enough, I suppose, but I could never work out why they did what they did, nor who was good and who was bad. That Darth Vader chap seemed nice.

But I quite liked getting out of the house, if only to sit in a tightly packed cinema, with a constant stream of little children squeezing past on their way back from the toilets.

I suspect we won’t be invited again, though.

Dangerous book covers

And possibly dangerously murderous contents as well.

I rarely pay all that much attention to the more salesy emails I receive. No time, and no interest in buying lots of books. Especially if I don’t get round to reading them.

But there was this one yesterday, from the big bookshop chain. I have deleted it for my own safety, but I will admit to having looked more than once at the books they offered for Christmas.

I mean, they weren’t actually suggesting I buy these books to give to others, were they? I was more thinking I’d love the books for myself. But that’s a most selfish way of looking at Christmas.

What they had were a handful of crime novels, all with the most enticing covers. That’s the thing really. Some of the books may easily have been bad inside, but oh those dark, snow covered, often retro style houses, where murder is about to happen or has happened – in style, obviously – well, it’s just too hard to resist. Hence the email-deleting. Or else…

It’s the faux Agatha books, or perhaps even some real ones, that are so dangerous. Sometimes it feels as if I could sit and do nothing else but read snowy Christmas murders (as though that was a nice thing).

One Christmas, when I was 17 or thereabouts, I received The Secret of Chimneys (Hemligheten på Chimneys). I have no recollection whether Christmas featured in the story, or if it was my Christmas, all mixed up with a fancy house and all the people therein, murdering each other and stuff, but I so wanted to pack a suitcase right then and simply pop over to England.

Because that’s what it’s like, yes? All that snow, the pretty lights and the red of the holly berries. And the blood.

Murder on the Caledonian

I mean drinks. Of course I do. There was no murder.

After I arrived at King’s Cross, which was not Euston, I then had to travel home again. After I’d done what I came for. To confuse matters, I travelled home from Euston.

Rather than spend the night in a hotel (I find I’m going off hotels) I suggested to Son we should book ourselves on the Caledonian Sleeper, and travel in style. I’m keener now, since discovering the beds have new mattresses and pillows, as well as duvets and duvet covers. The beds are still narrow, but the rest is fine.

We had an interconnecting door between our ‘rooms.’ Son was awfully excited by this and had to take a photo. (I hasten to add that he is so young and I am so old, that both of us qualify for a third off the fare, which is how you make this affordable. Before you think I’m rich, or something.)

He then invited me for a bedtime drink in the Lounge. It was very civilised and straight out of Agatha Christie. (Until the Americans turned up.)

While Son had something I’m glad mother-of-witch couldn’t see, I had tea. Or it would have been tea had the lovely barman not forgotten the teabag. But that just added to the jollity, and with teabag, the tea tasted like nectar. (Well, it had been a long day.)

There were a few other passengers drinking, chatting politely to strangers across the aisle. Someone ‘old,’ who looked like they came straight from the opera, and a white-shirted beautiful young man who could have starred in any Poirot you care to mention.

So there we were, enjoying our Agatha-ness and the sophistication of sleeper travel. No one was being murdered or anything.

When in walked a party of Americans, maybe ten of them. I love Americans, but these were so very American, somehow. Loud, dissatisfied with what they found, ordering American whisky and not liking there was none. Suggesting there ought to have been soft music in the background. (Wouldn’t have been enough of a sound barrier.) Taking photos of each other and wanting to put them on Facebook, asking if there was wi-fi.

Thank goodness there was no wi-fi.

There could have been murder. (I’m hoping they went to Glasgow. I didn’t see them – or hear them – in the morning.)

The author crack’d

Well, what do you do? You have an event, some distance away from where you live. And you discover you are pretty ill on the day. You have that stomach bug your child got a day or two ago.

Authors are hardworking people for the most part. They don’t want to let people down, so obviously you work out how (if) you can somehow stagger to this – sold out – event tonight and deliver what you have agreed to do. (Even if it ‘kills’ you.)

The thing is, it’s the killing, or seriously affecting, other people you need to think about. Not whether you can stay upright for long enough to get through an event.

Someone on social media recently started a discussion on this very subject and after the first comments of encouragement, the sensible brigade stepped in and told the author on no account was he/she to travel. Reminders were posted on the effects their noble suffering could have on the audience, the organisers, people on the train there, and so on.

(This is the problem with a society that allows for no weakness. Far too many people believe that you should stretch yourself that little bit more; come into work with a sniffle or a temperature. But it’s not just the discomfort or danger for the patient to be considered. It’s everyone else. Is the office really benefitting from X passing on what they are suffering from to most of the others?)

And no amount of disappointment because you didn’t get to see your chosen author that evening can make up for hundreds more people falling ill, potentially seriously, if they are vulnerable.

It made me recall Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. It’s one thing to innocently go out before you know you’ve caught a virus. Quite another to go out when you know.

The author stayed at home. And the organisers found a – very attractive – replacement. So there was not even the need for them to turn away a venue full of literary fans. They got an event, and if they contracted any vomiting bugs, it wasn’t from our original author.

Sophie Hannah on her second Poirot

Despite Edinburgh’s trams trying really very hard to keep me from Sophie Hannah’s event at Blackwell’s on Thursday evening, they failed. I steamed in just as Ann Landmann was pressuring everyone to move closer, saying there – probably – wasn’t going to be any audience participation to worry about. I was just pleased to be so late but still find someone had kept Bookwitch’s corner on the leather sofa for me. That’s all I cared about.

Ann at Blackwell's

Ann was busy stroking Sophie’s new Poirot novel, Closed Casket, suggesting what a good Christmas present this lovely, shiny book would make, hint, hint. (And it would, were I the kind of person who gives people presents.) The rest of you, pay attention! Buy Closed Casket for everyone.

I have heard the background to how Sophie was given the lovely task of becoming the new Agatha Christie before. I was interested to see how much she’d be able to vary it. It was about half and half; some the same, some new.

She put most of the blame on her crazy agent, who doesn’t do reassurance terribly well, and thinks it’s OK to tell her she is ‘brilliant, etc’ when she needs to be comforted. (As an aside I reckon Adèle Geras [Sophie’s mother] was quite correct in feeling her daughter should have been made head girl at school. Sophie is a very head girl-y kind of person.)

Basically Sophie got the job (Agatha Christie, not head girl) through good timing, and also by having plenty of experience of Dragon’s Den. Whatever that is. And you ‘can’t say no to Agatha Christie’s grandson.’

Sophie Hannah

The idea for Closed Casket, which incidentally is another four-word idea [like Murder on the Orient Express], describing how the novel ends, came when she had an argument with her sister. As Sophie now ‘blames’ her Christie fixation on her father Norm’s cricket book collection, I feel we have much to thank the Geras family for.

She doesn’t know if her book is any good, but she does know that her idea is. It’s the best and simplest idea ever, and she is very fond of this book. It has an Enid Blyton style character in it, and if the first chapter is anything to go by, I can see this will be a fun book to read.

Sophie doesn’t write chronologically, and in this case she was so tired that she began with the easiest chapter. Chapter 23. The house where the murder takes place was found by extensive time spent on Rightmove until she happened upon a house in Ireland that fitted the bill. So no, nothing to do with Irish politics in 1929.

Sophie Hannah

As she doesn’t know how many Poirot books there might be, Sophie is eking out the years between 1928 and 1932, not letting much time pass between her first two mysteries, just in case. Hitherto every generation has discovered the world of Agatha Christie, but not the current one. That’s partly the reason the Christie family needed something new to offer potential readers, and the idea appears to have been successful, with fresh interest in Poirot.

No, writing Poirot is not difficult. It has ‘instantly become the thing she most wants to do.’ Even if she does have to share the profits with the Christie family. Sophie does not want to write any Miss Marple stories, if only to prevent herself from believing she actually is Agatha. She’s already half expecting them to turn over Agatha’s house Greenway to her…

Sophie Hannah