Sunday, 18 July 2010

Appointment with Death. By Agatha Christie

Appointment with Death

Agatha Christie

Harper Edition (2001) First published 1938

A Hercule Poirot mystery set in what is now Israel/West Bank/Jordan. The story is not so good, though I could not guess the criminal. The background however is interesting. Though Christie pays no special attention to it, the politics that was going on (and which eventually led to the current extremely complicated situation in that region) comes through even with the cursory descriptions of the local people and what they say and do. The entire main cast of characters consists of a British and American tourist party (except, of course, for the Belgian Poirot), the figures of authority are all British, the servants (inefficient, unreliable and having to be 'firmly' dealt with) are all local Arabs and Palestinians who grumble incessantly and, to the tourist party, irritatingly, about the 'Jews'. Christie's husband was an archaeologist who worked in Palestine, and she often accompanied him there. Which explains her rather authentic, though superficial, descriptions of the background.

Oliver Twist. By Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist

Charles Dickens

Penguin Popular Classics (1994).
First published 1837-39

I re-read this book maybe for the fourth or fifth time, having first read it, to my memory, in about 1968, when I was about 13 years old. I remember it was the Blackie edition then, maybe abridged, with very small (8 point?) print and a hardcover. The impressions that remained with me from that time include the famous 'Some more' scene, the Artful Dodger and friend confusing Oliver when they practice their pickpocketing with Fagin, the scene when Oliver is first cared for by Mr. Brownlow, and, most of all, the climactic scene where Bill Sikes murders Nancy and then later hangs himself accidently in trying to escape. Rereading the book after many years (I don't remember when I last read it, but it must have been about 20 years ago, when I used to visit the British Council library regularly) brought back these scenes with renewed vividity. They were as good as I ever remembered them. Being an very early work (Dickens must have written it when he was 25!) some of the maturity of his later work is missing, though his 'leftist' ideas are already visible. Also he has not yet developed into a very competent storyteller, so many of the connections between the characters are hard to follow and there are too many coincindences invoked to tie up the story. The other thing which struck me about this book, as, in retrospect, about all his other novels, is that though outwardly 'leftist' he does not go too far away from the basic feudalism of his times, times populated by 'gentlemen' and 'common folk' and the good ones among the former patronising the latter, but not really mixing with them. These class differences, of course, persist very strongly to this day in many of the ancient civilisations, including India, but are less apparent, for example, in America, where anyone with money is respected. Thus Dickens' protagonist is usually a child with an upper class (or upper middle-class) origin and background, who by circumstance, falls into the lower class, and then by fortune or hardwork, regains his upper class status. Pip, David, Oliver, Nicholas all go through roughly through such a process. (Only, Pip in Great Expectations, among the four, does not have a upper-middle background to start with).