Sunday, 8 February 2015

Death on the Nile. By Agatha Christie.

Death on the Nile

Agatha Christie

First published 1937

Christie assembles a more or less conventional cast of characters on a tourist boat on the Nile, with Hercule Poirot along for the ride. The victim is a likable and wealthy young lady, with friends and lovers and would-be lovers all along for the ride. There are also a host of other characters, any of whom, by authorial fiat, could turn in an instant from villain to heroine or vice-versa. In the event the culprit is someone I guessed half-way through the book, almost immediately after the murder is discovered.

As usual with all her books, the actual suspense is in game played between author and reader. Christie fills the narrative with red herrings and misdirection, while all the while having to play it 'fair' - i.e. to be able to say at the end: 'see, this was the logical solution all along, but only Poirot has the logical enough mind'. It is only rarely that it is possible to have a clue like the 'dog that did not bark in the night', where the fact can be made known to the reader, but the proper deduction from it is still so clever that it can be later revealed as an act of the detective-hero's genius. In the absence of such devices, detective stories succeed not by being elaborate puzzles for the reader, but by filling the story with a lot of rich and interesting background, or action, or social comment. A detective novel should also be, primarily, a novel. This book unfortunately is not. All the same, given Christie's reputation for surprising and satisfying resolution of the mystery ('...Roger Ackroyd', '...Orient Express') it is difficult to put this book down half-finished. As I do whenever I read one of her books, as and when the characters are introduced I try and guess who the victim is. And immediately after the crime is discovered and described I make a guess at the criminal, without necessarily being able to describe why and how. While reading rest of the book I look for clues in the way she takes the story forward (how she arranges the clues, whom she talks most about, and whom the least about and so on) to try and confirm my guess. This of course makes me read her books fully and derive enjoyment from them, and seek to read more. Maybe that is exactly what she has planned all along!  

Jennings and Darbishire. By Anthony Buckeridge

Jennings and Darbishire

Anthony Buckeridge

House of Stratus. First published 1952.

I re-read a much beloved favourite of my early teens. I am not sure when I read my first Jennings book, sometime probably in the 1969/1970. I have though good memories associated with them. Coming, as they did, after I had more or less finished reading the entire series of Richmal Compton's 'William' books, and after I had grown away from Enid Blyton, Buckeridge, as I remember, was an unpretentious and uncomplicated follow-up. His stories held their own even against books by authors like Alistair Maclean and James Hadley Chase, which I was just beginning to devour. 

J.C.T. Jennings is an inky-fingered, tousled-headed 'third-former' at Linbury Court school with a bright imagination and a genius for getting into troube with his school masters. His closest friend is C.E.J. Darbishire, a gentle Watson to Jennings's eager Sherlock. Like William, their troubles are often caused by their grandiose schemes, derived from the stories they read, the movies they watch, or from their classroom lessons. Some of their scrapes are uproariously funny, and all of there are amusing. Each book is string of overlapping anecdotes, sometimes with a continuing point of tension that is resolved only at the end.

The background is a preparatory (i.e. primary/middle) boarding school in the 1950s and 1960s Britain. It is a gentle time, with little changing in the countryside, and very little of the larger world intruding. This was the time Britain was ceding world leadership to the Americans. It was the beginning of multicultural Britain, when people from former colonies around the world sought to share in the prosperity which the previous generations of their countrymen had created. These tensions, however, play little part in these books. The only signs of 'progress' as compared to previous school literature (e.g. the school books of P.G. Wodehouse) are the many references to technological advances - motor cars, supersonic flight, space travel, etc. 

In this book, Jennings receives a play printing press as a present from his aunt. He and and his friend decide to publish a 'newspaper' called 'Form Three Times'. To collect reportage they conduct a hilarious interview with the solely French-speaking crew of a fishing boat that seeks shelter from the storm at a nearby harbour. They are given a bunch of fish as a present. Their efforts to smuggle the wet news-paper parcel into school forms a genuinely LOL sequence. Later in the book they are trapped at a tea-shop in Linbury village without money, unable to get back to class of Mr. Wilkins, their particularly irritable master. They are rescued by a personable young lady to whom they pour out their troubles, being especially complaining about Mr. Wilkins, without realizing that she is his sister. Matters end well, however, when Miss Wilkins intercedes on their behalf with her brother.

After four decades, the stories are as fresh and as enjoyable as they ever were.