Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Underdog & Other Stories

The Underdog and Other Stories by Agatha Christie is a reread for me. It had been so long since I first read these nine stories that it was almost like reading them for the first time. One thing that struck me about most of them on this go-round is how much Christie was following the Holmesian short story model. The opening of "The Affair at the Victory Ball," for instance has a very Watson-like phraseology and style:

Pure chance led my friend Hercule Poirot, formerly chief of the Belgian force, to be connected with Styles Case. His success brought him noteriety, and he decided to devote himself to the solving of problems in crime. Having been wounded on the Somme and invalided out of the Army, I final took up my quarters with him in London. Since I have a first-hand knowledge of most of his cases, it has been suggested to me that I select some of the most interesting and place them on record. In doing so, I feel I cannot do better than begin with that strange tangle which aroused such widespread public interest at the time. I refer to the affair at the Victory Ball.

And the beginning of "The Lemesurier Inheritance" as well:

In company with Poirot, I have investigated many strange cases, but none, I think, to compare with that extraordinary series of events which held our interest over a period of many years, and which culminated in the ultimate problem brought Poirot to solve.

All but one of the stories are told by Captain Hastings in the same narrative-journal format that Dr. Watson uses. And Poirot uses some Holmes dramatic flair to wrap up a few of the cases. He is much more active in tracking down clues (despite talking about the psychology and the little grey cells)...or at least giving the appearance of doing so. In "The Submarine Plans" he even devotes time to the search for footprints.

Another intriguing tidbit...at least two of the stories include a insert by editors about two pages from the end which suggests that "the reader pause in his perusal of the story at this point, make his own solution to the mystery - and then see how close he comes to that of the author." Early Ellery Queen stories would also make use of this "challenge to the reader"--telling the reader that he now had all of the necessary clues and should be able to solve the mystery for himself.

Revisiting these short stories was great fun and it was interesting to see how much Christie was mirroring the work of Doyle and foreshadowing the challenges of Queen. I don't remember noticing that the first time I read them. With the shorter format, the plots were not quite as mysterious as the full-length novels. It is much harder to hide the culprit when you have less space in which to display red herrings and false clues. But, overall, a good set of stories from the early years of Poirot and Hastings.  

A short synopsis of each story:
"The Underdog" (near novella-length): The irritable Sir Reuben Astwell is found dead and his nephew is blamed for the murder. Lady Astwell is certain she knows who the killer is, but can offer no evidence. Poirot is called in to prover her right...but is she?

"The Plymouth Express": The daughter of a wealthy American steel king is found stabbed to death on the train and her jewel case is missing. Was it a robbery gone wrong? Did an ex-lover do the deed? Or perhaps it was her husband?

"The Affair at the Victory Ball": Two people in a party of merry-makers at the Victory Ball die--one is stabbed and one dies of an overdose of cocaine. The only clue? A green pom-pom.

"The Market Basing Mystery": Japp, Poirot, and Hastings venture to the countryside for a bit of a holiday. When it appears a village resident committed suicide, but the doctor isn't satisfied with that solution, the local constable asks Japp and his colleagues to assist.

"The Lemesurier Inheritance": A legendary curse says that no first-born son will inherit in the Lemesurier family...and history records that the curse has been pretty accurate. Can Poirot stop the latest outbreak of first-born deaths?

"The Cornish Mystery": Mrs. Pengelley suspects that she might be a victim of steady poisoning. But she's not sure. She thinks it might be her husband who is doing the poisoning. But, again, she's not sure. She asks Poirot to investigate...and then she dies. Did her husband really poison her?

"The King of Clubs": The beautiful dancer, Valerie Saintclair, bursts into a room where a family is playing bridge, announces that their neighbor has been murdered, and faints. The man is someone who had a hold over Valerie...but she insists she didn't kill him. Poirot is invited to find out who did.

"The Submarine Plans": Top-secret plans for a new type of submarine disappear from Lord Alloway's desk. But it looks like no one could have taken them. Did his secretary really place them on the desk? Or is there another answer? Poirot will discover the truth.

"The Adventure of the Clapham Cook": Poirot is reluctant to respond to Mrs. Todd's request that he find her missing cook. After all, the great detective shouldn't be bothered except for the most important of crimes. But the good lady convinces him that an excellent cook is worth her weight in gold and just as important as the finest jewels. Poirot will be very surprised just how important a missing cook can be.

All of the stories were published separately from 1923-25, and the collection was published in the United States in 1951. This fulfills the "Animal in the Title" square on the Golden Vintage Bingo card.


fredamans said...

Great review! Sounds like another book the hubby would like.

Ryan said...

Ooooh, I haven't ever read this one. I'm looking forward to it.