Sunday, September 14, 2014

Agatha Christie Audionovels: 2 Mini-Reviews

I had to take a bit of a road trip this weekend, so I took advantage of the three hours each way to listen to a couple of Agatha Christie audionovels that I picked up at our Friends of the Library Used Bookstore last fall. On the way north to Wabash on Friday, I listened to The Sittaford Mystery and then on the way home today I listened to Joan Hickson herself read The Herb of Death and Other Stories. It made the trip just fly by. The only downside is that I never feel like I can do justice to the work in a review when I listen rather than read--I get caught up in the performance, as it were, and tend to just let the words flow over me. But I'll do my best with these two works by the one and only Dame Agatha Christie. (No substitutions here!)

First up, The Sittaford Mystery, originally published in 1931, is a non-series mystery. It is set in a small village on Dartmoor and opens at Sittaford House. Mrs. Willett and her daughter Violet have rented the house in the country from Captain Trevelyan. The villagers think it a bit add that the ladies from South Africa would want to come to the middle of nowhere in the dead of winter, but there's no telling what foreigners will do, is there? The ladies host a little party, inviting the good captain, Captain Trevelyan’s long-standing friend, Major Burnaby, Mr Rycroft, Mr Ronnie Garfield and Mr Duke. But due to a heavy snowfall, the Captain isn't expected to make it from Exhampton--his place of residence while the Willetts occupy his home. And he doesn't.

During the course of the evening, the group decides to do a harmless bit of table-turning. It all starts as a lark, but the evening turns serious when the spirits suddenly tell the company that Captain Trevelyan is dead. The message ends with a single word...M-U-R-D-E-R! Mrs. Willett is sure that one of the young men is just having a rather morbid joke, but Major Burnaby is worried. It's an evening that he and Trevelyan normally see one another, so he decides to head out into the snow and walk the six miles to Trevelyan's place. When he arrives, he can't get anyone to answer so he ousts a policeman and the doctor from their warm station and house to help him investigate. What they find would seem to prove that seances really do work....Captain Trevelyan is dead from a killing blow from a sandbag. Inspector Narracott is called in to sift through the possible suspects--the Captain's relatives all inherit equal shares of his rather large fortune; all but one have alibis. When it's discovered that James Pearson, Trevelyan's nephew, was actually on the spot at the right time it looks like the police will easily wrap-up the case. But Pearson's girlfriend Emily knows Jim couldn't commit a murder and sets out to prove his innocence. It isn't long before she provides the police with broken alibis and a renewed cast of suspects.

The audio version was actually a BBC dramatization with a whole line-up of performers. It was very nicely put together and quite entertaining. I spotted the  murderer right away, but I'm sure that was because I've read the novel before (albeit long ago and far away). I don't believe I figured it out the first time. In fact, I'm quite sure I know who I fastened on as suspect #1 before, because I nearly changed my mind in his/her favor this time. This is classic Christie--several possible solutions, red herrings galore, and all the clues on display. I gave the story four stars the first time I read it and I give it  ★★ now--only because she didn't quite fool me on the re-read. She very often does--if I've left it long enough between reads. 

Next up: The Herb of Death & Other Stories (all stories originally written 1933 and earlier; first appeared in The Tuesday Club Murders). This collection features three stories which were presented as puzzles for the members of the "Tuesday Club" to solve--with Miss Marple always appearing as the successful detective--even when pitted against Sir Henry Clithering of Scotland Yard. The final story takes place long after the gatherings when Sir Henry happens to be visiting St. Mary Mead. The stories which Joan Hickson reads are "The Herb of Death," "The Thumbmark of St. Peter," "The Affair of the Bungalow," and "Death by Drowning." I'll give a short description of each...

"The Herb of Death": Mrs. Bantry takes her turn at presenting a puzzle for the group. She tells of a dinner party where fox gloves leaves were mixed in with sage and everyone at the dinner became ill. Everyone recovered except the ward of the host. The young woman died and it was initially thought that the leaves were simply mixed in by mistake. But Miss Marple spots the clues that prove murder...and correctly names the murderer as well.

"The Thumbmark of St. Peter": Miss Marple tells the story of her niece Mabel who wed unwisely and soon regretted it--for her husband was a bit of bully and they quarreled often. After one particularly heated argument, the husband died mysteriously the next night. Small villages just can't resist gossip and soon rumors are flying round that Mabel has poisoned her husband. Mabel called upon her aunt to help her out of her mess. Miss Marple was able to discover that the man was indeed poisoned and the guilty party was soon identified.

"The Affair of the Bungalow": Jane Heiler, a beautiful actress, tells this story. She presents it as having happened to "a friend," but the others are quite sure that the story is Jane's own. While on tour with a play, she was called in by the police to be identified by a young man who claimed she had written a letter and requested his presence at a certain bungalow which belonged to another actress. He had met her there and then been drugged.  A robbery had taken place at the bungalow and he is being held as a suspect. But when Jane arrives at the police station, the man says that she isn't the right woman. What really happened? Miss Marple knows...even though she says she doesn't while the group is all together.

"Death by Drowning": Rose Emmett has been found drowned in the river near St. Mary Mead. She was pregnant and her lover had refused to marry her so everyone thought she had killed herself. But Miss Marple knew she'd been murdered. When she hears that Sir Henry Clithering is in town for a visit, she asks him to investigate. She has no proof and doesn't think the local police will take her reasons seriously. She writes down the name of her suspect and asks Sir Henry to find a way to discover whether she's correct. When an apparently unshakeable alibi is produced, it begins to look as if Miss Marple has made her first mistake....but Christie fans know that can't be possible.

Joan Hickson provides a very entertaining reading of these four classic short stories. And Agatha Christie provides her usual caliber of mystifying narrative. I was quite taken in--particularly in the last one where I was sure I knew the name written on that piece of paper, only to find out that I was wrong. Excellent mysteries by the Queen of Crime.


fredamans said...

I feel the same about audiobooks. I listen but not enough. Reading the words absorb the story more in my mind.
I just got a free Agatha Christie book on Bookshout. Can't recall which one though....
Great mini's!!

Ryan said...

I really enjoyed The Sittaford Mystery.