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The Year of Agatha

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Small Town Secrets: A Murder is Announced 2.0

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"Ye gods and little fishes," said Sir Henry, "can it be? George, it's my own particular, one and only, four-starred pussy. The super-pussy of all old pussies. And she has managed somehow to be at Medenham Wells, instead of peacefully at home in St. Mary Mead, just at the right time to be mixed up in a murder. Once more a murder is announced -- for the benefit and enjoyment of Miss Marple."
- A Murder is Announced, p. 71

The Sum of It
First of all how adorably quaint is that quote, which in these modern times COULD be read with one's mind in the gutter to much hilarity. So, exciting news in the little village of Chipping Cleghorn -- literally -- as the citizens open their morning papers over breakfast. "A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks, at 6:30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation," reads a small announcement amid notices of available dachshund puppies and antiques for sale. The curiousity of several is stoked, and they turn up promptly at Ms. Letitia Blacklock's home, Little Paddocks, to see what the mystery is all about. Everyone is quite shocked when a sudden power outage plunges the drawing room into darkness, and then a voice yelling at everyone to put their hands up is followed by one gunshot and then another! When the room is re-lit, the hostess is covered in blood from a wound on her ear due to a near miss, and the masked intruder lies dead in the hallway #DRAMA. 

Who put the notice in the paper? Who planned this whole event? Was someone really trying to kill Miss Blacklock, and if so why? The police must sort through the curious inhabitants of Chipping Cleghorn to find the answers to these questions and more, particularly after another murder follows the death of the intruder. Fortunately for them, Miss Marple just so happens to be in town visiting the local vicar's wife, daughter of one of her old pals. It quickly turns out the shooting is only one of many mysteries as Miss Marple and the local detectives uncover multiple secret identities, money plots, hidden doorways, and old ladies on the coast of Scotland to get to the bottom of the murder announced. 

The YOA Treatment
J'adore Miss Marple, and her ability to be on the spot just as mysteries pop up around her certainly delights in this classic tale. She's at the top of her game in this book, still sprightly enough to go tramping down village lanes and hide in cupboards, and certainly not missing a beat in her analyses of human nature. This is a well-crafted mystery, one that keeps the reader guessing, but also one that does offer some good hints along the way that might allow the clever reader to figure out who-dunnit, a rarity in Agatha's books! 

One of the interesting aspects of this book among the Agatha-folk is the inclusion of the characters Miss Murgatroyd and Miss Hinchliffe, two spinster ladies who live together and take care of each other. It honestly seems quite clear that the two might even be a couple, which seems awfully open minded of 1950's Agatha, herself quite Victorian in her typical sensibilities! Another one of my favorite aspects of the book is the prominent role a goiter plays, as this malady can't help but being amusing in its randomness and drama. I really enjoyed this story, and though I was familiar with its twists from the television adaptation (which is great #MatthewGoode #HeartEyesForever), I was still eager to reach Miss Marple's reveal of the true murderer in the end. I'll certainly recommend this one to Agatha-curious pals.

- E. 

Poirot's Mythology Lesson: The Labors of Hercules 2.0

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"In the period before his final retirement he would accept twelve cases, no more, no less. And those twelve cases should be selected with special reference to the twelve labors of ancient Hercules. Yes, that would not only be amusing, it would be artistic, it would be spiritual." 
-The Labors of Hercules, p. 14

The Sum of It: 
Poirot is going through one of those phases where he's being kind of dramatic about retiring. In that he's like should I retire? Should I not retire? Should I work on my vegetable marrow cultivation? (The whole vegetable marrow obsession of Poirot's is one of my favorite things in all of Christie's writing.) He's having a little night in with a rando pal named Dr. Burton and they're discussing retirement among other things and Dr. Burton randomly pivots to ask the history behind Poirot's first name: Hercule. Dr. Burton is wondering if it's like a family name? Were his parents really into reading The Classics? Poirot is like uh IDK, also IDK about The Classics, NEVER READ THEM. The next day Poirot is feeling lame for not having read The Classics, particularly those tales about his namesake, Hercules, and, after learning a bit about said Greek hero, decides he will give himself a little challenge: before he retires he will accept only twelve more cases, and each case will match up with one of the twelve labors of Hercules. 

What follows in this book is twelve short stories outlining these twelve "final" cases of Poirot (as we know, Poirot rarely follows through with his retirement ultimatums and always gets pulled into doing "one more!" so we can never take the word "final" very seriously). Besides the mythology connection theme, there isn't necessarily an overarching mystery thread going between them all, but this is kind of a welcome change to Poirot's usual stories, and we get to see a lot of different cases involving kidnapped dogs, missing school girls, disgraced prime ministers, blackmailed hotel guests, and even Poirot's old girlfriend, Countess Vera Rossakoff! 

The YOA Treatment:
As you probably heard time and time again during our initial Year of Agatha, Emily and I were not huge fans of Agatha's short story collections. Nothing against short stories in general, we just prefer a longer, more in-depth mystery in novel form. However, reading The Labors of Hercules might have converted me to a short story liker, if not a full blown short story lover. I was not very familiar with these particular cases (since Emily read them for our first Year of Agatha, and I can't remember if I had ever read this book as a kid!) so it was fun to experience some puzzles that were unfamiliar. The concept seems a bit gimmicky, but Agatha does a good job of presenting plausible cases that tie into Hercules's labors and with a bit of a lighter tone than some of her other short stories. It was also interesting to see her, as she has done with other short stories, test out some ideas that make it into her later novels. The most obvious example from this collection is the similarities between The Girdle of Hippolyta and Cat Among the Pigeons. I was a little sad to not see Hastings by Poirot's side in this set, but Japp and Poirot's ever-faithful valet, George, make several appearances. 

Overall, I heartily recommend The Labors of Hercules as a fun, easy Poirot that can be read in multiple sittings or, honestly, just one dedicated afternoon. And if you're usually averse to short stories, I dare you to give this one a chance and see if it doesn't make you a convert as well.


Weekend at Angkatell's: The Hollow 2.0

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"Then he looked down on the shot man, and he started. For the dying man's eyes were open. They were intensely blue eyes and they held an expression that Poirot could not read but which he described to himself as a kind of intense awareness. And suddenly, or so it felt to Poirot, there seemed to be in all this group of people only one person who was really alive - the man who was at the point of death." 
-The Hollow, p. 107

The Sum of It:
We begin our story with party planning. Lady Lucy Angkatell is wandering her house in the early hours of the morning, muttering to herself about her forthcoming house party, and wondering how she's going to make her guest list mesh. WE FEEL YA, GIRL #beenthere. She has an odd mix of friends and family coming to visit her home, The Hollow, and she isn't sure their personalities are going to be a good fit. On her guest list are the Christows: the husband a hottie, arrogant doctor named John who is simultaneously close to a breakthrough in his research into Ridgeway's Disease, having an affair with the dedicated sculptor, Henrietta Savernake, and being kind a bit of a jerk to his naive and devoted wife, Gerda; aloof cousins, David and Edward Angkatell, coming with some skipping Lucy in the line of succession inheritance business that seems a bit unfair; and ANOTHER cousin, Midge Hardcastle, who is sensible and described often as being "sturdy." The eccentric Lucy is right to be wary of the tensions between this group, as Midge is kind of in heart love with Edward, who is in love with Henrietta, who is having an affair with John, who married to Gerda. #YIKES. 

When everyone arrives for the weekend, it appears that everyone might make it out unscathed, until a neighbor shows up in the middle of their nighttime bridge game asking to borrow some matches. This neighbor is none other than glamorous film star, Veronica Cray...who happens to also be John Christow's ex #awkward. She asks John to walk her home after her SUUUUUPER plausible excuse to drop by, and he does so without much arm twisting. The next morning John is feeling a bit guilty, but before he can feel too bad about it, he is shot dead, his dying words being "Henrietta..." But Veronica isn't the only Angkatell neighbor, and, as it happens, Hercule Poirot has been invited to lunch on the exact afternoon John Christow is shot. As Poirot happens upon the tableaux that is everyone standing around gaping at the dying John, it's apparently that not everything is as it seems, and that it's going to take the brains of the world's greatest detective to solve this case!

The YOA Treatment:
The Hollow (also known as Murder After Hours) is one of those books that checks every box on the list of hallmarks of a Christie classic. Weekend party at a country home of some random Lord or Lady? Check. Love triangles galore? Check. Poirot? Check. It's interesting that Agatha, in true Agatha fashion, due to her dislike of her own Belgian detective, regretted putting him in this novel, noting in her Autobiography that the book would have been better without him. I thought he was a bit subdued, but worked for this particular puzzle. He's on vacay in one of his country cottages and, hilariously, a bit annoyed when he first stumbles upon the John Christow murder, thinking the Angkatells have put together some sort of fake murder mystery game for him to solve. HE DID NOT COME TO THE COUNTRY FOR THIS KIND OF NONSENSE! 

While not necessarily my favorite Christie, I did enjoy this book. I always enjoy hearing Agatha's memories of her own home or estates of people she knew come through her descriptions of country homes in her books. In this case, she modeled The Hollow after the home of British actor, Francis L. Sullivan, who famously won a Tony award in 1955 for his role in the stage production of The Witness for the Prosecution. 


The Local Gossip: The Moving Finger 2.0

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"You see," he said, "crude, childish spite though it is, sooner or later one of these letters will hit the mark. And then, God knows what may happen! I'm afraid, too, of the effect upon the slow, suspicious, uneducated mind. If they see a thing written, they believe its true. All sorts of complications may arise."
-The Moving Finger, p. 15

The Sum of It:
Brother and sister duo Jerry and Joanna have absconded from the city to the quaint village of Lymstock, where Jerry is meant to follow his doctor's orders of rest and relaxation as he heals from injuries suffered when an airplane he was flying crashed. They're renting a fusty little house from an equally fusty old lady, and Joanna, sophisticated city girl though she is, and her brother are trying to take an interest in local goings on #villagelife. 

Shortly after they arrive, however, they receive a so-called "poison pen letter," pieced together from letters cut out of a book, accusing them of being a risque couple as opposed to a perfectly innocent brother and sister, and calling Joanna some rather nasty names. They laugh it off, but find that they are only the most recent of many villagers who have received such letters making vicious but typically unfounded and untrue allegations against the recipients. When one of the recipients is found dead, her letter nearby and an apparent suicide note at her side, the police decide to track down the sender once and for all, as the letters have now begun to result in real injury. However, the case escalates when the dead woman's maid is found quite clearly murdered, having been bludgeoned in the head. Jerry and the police work to track down the letter writer and presumed killer, but run into frustration time and again. Meanwhile Jerry develops a bit of a crush on the dead woman's awkward daughter, and EVENTUALLY, like 3/4 of the way through the book, Miss Marple turns up, asks a few questions, and essentially solves the case. Quite like Miss Marple, really!

The YOA Treatment:
When Audrey read this one during the first go-around, she was adamant that I needed to read it someday, and now that I've finally gotten around to it, I can certainly see why. This book, written during Agatha's prime, is funny and clever, a page turner with a pleasant narrator in Jerry. The village of Lymstock is perfectly painted, and one can just imagine the fluffy old ladies gossiping about the most recent poison pen letter outside the adorable local grocer. Even though Miss Marple honestly barely figures in the story at all, I found this to be one of my favorite Christie reads. 

One of the most enjoyable characters in my opinion was Megan, the awkward young lady Jerry finds himself quite taken with. She's terribly self aware, and makes funny observations about the provincial opinions of the people in town and her own family's inability to figure out what to do with her #notagirlnotyetawoman. I very much enjoyed the scenes when Jerry and Megan take a day trip into the city so he can buy her some clothes befitting a lovely young woman rather than an awkward girl, and they escape themselves and the village for a sophisticated dinner and dance. Even though I have seen the (very good) adaptation several times, I wasn't quite sure who the killer was, and found myself quite satisfied by the build up and reveal. I often enjoy the light, fun mysteries more than the heavier ones, but this one seemed to have a nice balance that would suit any Christie reader, and I'm certain I'll find myself recommending it to many friends!

- E. 

A Jolly Holiday with Anne: The Man in the Brown Suit 2.0

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"When I am married, I shall be a devil most of the time, but every now and then, when my husband least expects it, I shall show him what a perfect angel I can be." 
-Anne Beddingfeld, The Man in the Brown Suit, p. 202

The Sum of It:
The Man in the Brown Suit is one of those delightful early Agatha books that is heavily spy thriller, with a dash of murder mystery, and a lot of exotic locations. Anne Beddingfeld is a spunky young woman who is somewhat repressed in her adventurous aspirations by assisting her professor father - "one of England's greatest living authorities on Primitive Man" - with his work. When he father sadly dies near the beginning of the book (CAUTIONARY TALE - WEAR A COAT WHEN DIGGING IN CAVES!), Anne heads to London with the little money her father left her. Anne is desperate for excitement, and London seems to be ready to give her nothing but governess or old lady companion jobs, HOWEVER, while waiting for her train at a tube station, Anne witnesses something very bizarre and exciting indeed: a man falls to his death on the train rails. Though it initially seems like an accident, Anne also notices a man in a brown suit (!!!) claiming to be a doctor examine the dead man's body, but then quickly flee the scene, leaving a scrap of paper with a mysterious message on it in his wake. "THIS IS THE ADVENTURE I HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR!," Anne says and goes full YOLO, deciding to devote herself to getting to the bottom of this strange experience. Using the last of her money, her wits, and what she's learned from adventure radio dramas, Anne hurls herself into a saga full of diamonds, dead ballerinas, handsome brooding men, and so much more.

The YOA Treatment:
When Emily read this book for our 2016 Year of Agatha, she quickly vaulted it into her top favorites. It had been at least a decade since I had read The Man in the Brown Suit, and I couldn't remember much about it, but I trusted her high praise. It made sense that Emily liked it so much because she is more partial to Agatha's more thriller-y novels (a la The Secret Adversary and The Secret at Chimneys, etc.), and I would definitely put this novel into that same category. While I'm usually more into the straightforward murder mysteries, I must admit I did thoroughly enjoy The Man in the Brown Suit. This book is a bit melodramatic at times (Anne's banter with/about her #crush is just hysterical) and sprinkled with some rather outdated references, however, the overall effect plays out like an old timey Rom Com with a bit more fluff and humor and overseas travel than truly terrifying near-death experiences. This novel is primarily written from Anne's point of view, and she is surprisingly relatable, even 94 years after it was published. Who hasn't dreamed of being dropped in the middle of your very own mysterious adventure, that (seemingly) only you can solve? While The Man in the Brown Suit doesn't go into the psychological crime solving games you may be used to from a Christie, it is another example of Agatha's ability to write long-lasting, relatable tales.


An Education: Cat Among the Pigeons 2.0

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"I think there is something wrong here," said Eileen Rich slowly. "It's as though there were someone among us who didn't belong." She looked at him, smiled, almost laughed and said, "Cat among the pigeons, that's the sort of feeling. We're the pigeons, all of us, and the cat's amongst us. But we can't see the cat."
- Cat Among the Pigeons, p. 98

The Sum of It:
Though most of it is set in a quintessential English mystery setting, a fancy girls school on a country estate, Agatha brings her personal twist even to the setting, starting the action out in her beloved Middle East. The fictional state of Ramat is on the brink of revolution, and beleaguered (and #doomed) Prince Ali Yusuf entrusts his family's nest egg, a literal pile of glittering jewels, to his righthand man, Bob, a British secret service type fellow who kind of acts as Ali Yusuf's bodyguard. Before they attempt to escape the revolution, Bob frantically looks for a way to get the jewels out of the country to jolly old England, making a surprising choice at the last minute. But before he can let anyone know where he hid them, Bob and Ali Yusuf meet an unfortunate end, and the jewels are hidden, their location guessed by only a few. 

Following this exciting spy-like episode, the action transitions to Meadowbank, a posh but slightly progressive girls boarding school in the British countryside, with an interesting assortment of educators, from the snobbish French Mistress to the unconventional but enchanting literature teacher, led by the formidable Miss Bulstrode. The students, a meticulously selected blend of sturdy British athletes, glamorous princesses, and clever scholars, and educators are all shocked when their idyllic environs are darkened by the mysterious murder of the unpopular games mistress, Miss Springer, in the school's fancy new athletics pavilion. When this death is followed by others, all the ladies start worrying that there's really a cat among the pigeons, and along with the police and the secret government agent in their midst, they must track the murderer down and figure out their motive before more lives -- and the life of the celebrated school -- are endangered. 

The YOA Treatment:
Audrey read and loved this book during the original year of Agatha, and I totally see why. This tale is classic Christie, her skill in her prime, and the type of story that became a model for other books in the genre for generations to come. Where sometimes mysteries are too obvious (though this is rarely if ever the case for Agatha), or so sneaky that there's NO way a reader to solve it before the author produces the reveal, this one is calibrated perfectly so that the savviest readers might figure out Agatha's clever twists by the end, but most of us can joyously read a long and pick up on some of the clues but enjoy the surprise but retrospective inevitability of the resolution when Poirot maps it out. 

One of the fun things about this book is that although Poirot steps in to help out the folks at Meadowbank and the venerable police wrap things up, for most of the story we get to see lots of new characters working their way through the mystery on their own. We often highlight some of the fun and ahead-of-their-time female empowerment elements of Agatha's work, and this book is a great example. Not only do we see the poised and perceptive Miss Bulstrode outsmart the police every time, but we see Agatha offer some of the cleverest deductions to an intrepid, tennis-loving schoolgirl, who works a huge piece of the mystery out for herself and takes the initiative to travel to London on her own and bring Poirot in on the action at exactly the right moment to protect herself, and her schoolmates, and get to the bottom of the crimes on campus. This one will definitely be among the first Agathas I recommend to friends, especially the ones who like to race the book's crime solvers to the final deduction!

- E.  

Tea and Scandal: The Murder at the Vicarage 2.0

"I daresay everyone thinks it is somebody different. That is why it is so important to have proofs. I, for instance, am quiet convinced I know who did it. But I must admit I haven't one shadow of proof." 
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- The Murder at the Vicarage, p. 213.

The Sum of It:
The Murder at the Vicarage was Agatha's first introduction of the inquisitive, gossip-fueled, always-a-step-ahead amateur sleuth Miss Marple, and since Audrey read this one last year and raved about how fun it was, I had to make it my first re-read of 2018. 

This story is narrated by the charming if a bit grumpy Vicar of St. Mary Mead, a small and veeery quintessential British village, which seems to have approximately 15 inhabitants, though there must be more because at once point the village church is described as crowded. But such a British village, no matter how tiny, is not immune to scandal, and right off the bat there's a discrepancy with the church money, an extramarital affair with a handsome artist in the Vicar's shed, and pretty soon after that, an actual murder in the Vicar's own study! The victim, Col. Protheroe, was ill-liked nearly universally, known for bossing everyone around, shouting constantly, and harsh convictions in his courtroom. Miss Marple, for one, can think of at least 7 people would would have liked to see him dead. 

As the evidence settles, largely aided by Miss Marple and her troupe of elderly lady busybodies who spend nearly all their time documenting the intricacies of town life (when not arranging their Japanese rock gardens or hosting visiting novelist nephews), the police suffer from an abundance of confessions and conflicting evidence. The more confused everyone becomes, the more serene and unflappable Miss Marple remains, biding her time until enough of the facts line up with her initial conclusion to clear everything up for the police and the poor Vicar, who's forced to become a bit of an amateur sleuth himself!

The YOA Treatment:
One of the things we came to realize about Miss Marple stories over the course of The Year of Agatha was that her tales have a uniquely clever tone and engaging pace. Perhaps because Agatha saw a bit of herself in Miss Marple, or a bit of some favorite neighbors, there's always a bit of a twinkle in Miss Marple's eye. No matter how silly or fanciful others think she is, she's actually two steps ahead of them at every turn, but never crows about it. She just bides her time, deducing all the way, until her conclusions are undeniable. Often, people in her circle start out the book annoyed by her nosiness and pronouncements about human nature, but she always wins them over by the end. Her spunk and quiet confidence are refreshing and charming, and The Murder at the Vicarage is a classic example. 

Miss Marple stories are also often quite funny, and The Murder at the Vicarage certainly fits that bill. Between the fussy Vicar, his flighty and mischievous young wife, their foolish and outspoken nephew Dennis, and their wholly incompetent maid, Mary, that one household alone had me chuckling out loud as I read. Miss Marple, gifted in the art of light irony spoken with a twinkle in her eye, is also awfully funny, especially as she interacts with her vainglorious author nephew Raymond or pompous policemen.  Agatha also injects her own sense of humor in the narration, such as this little poke at modern literature, given as a description of Raymond: 

"I cannot say that I have at any time a great admiration for Mr. Raymond West. He is, I know, supposed to be a brilliant novelist, and has made quite a name as a poet. His poems have no capital letters in them, which is, I believe, the essence of modernity. His books are about unpleasant people leading lives of surpassing dullness." 

The Murder at the Vicarage is the perfect introduction to Miss Marple, and to Agatha on the light side, and was also a perfect way to start of my year of reviewing some of Audrey's favorites from The Year of Agatha! 

- E.