Christie For Christmas! The Thirteen Problems

  • Post comments:5 Comments

It’s Christmas! Well, it was Christmas. Reviews are like Christmas cards – better late than never. I hope that all of you have a great New Year.
I thought it was high time to cover an Agatha Christie on this blog – and given I love short stories, this was the first thing I turned to. I should mention that, between Poirot and Miss Marple, my favourite is the spinster sleuth of St. Mary Mead.

These thirteen stories mark the debut of Miss Marple, before her full-length appearance. Pehaps Christie wanted to try out her new character before writing a full book about her, or perhaps Miss Marple’s nature as something of an armchair detective lends itself to the short story format. Miss Marple is a literal armchair detective here: the frame for all the stories (except the last one) is a series of dinner parties. Sir Henry Clithering, ex-commissioner of Scotland Yard, is the only non-Marple character present at both gatherings. The first dinner party, or actually parties – the timeline gets a bit shaky here (exactly how long is Sir Henry on holiday in St Mary Mead?) – also mark the first appearance of Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond West, and his eventual wife Joyce Lemprière. The second dinner party, which really is just one extremely long evening, introduces Dolly Bantry and her husband Colonel Arthur Bantry, who go on to pop up frequently in the novels.

Miss Marple as depicted by Gilbert Wilkinson, for the first six stories published in The Royal Magazine in 1927.

At both gatherings, each character in turn tells a story of some mystery they were involved with, and challenges the others to solve it. Of course, Miss Marple solves it every time.
Miss Marple’s method of solving the cases appears fully formed here; she tends to use her intuition – that is, judgement honed on years of observing the petty grievances of St. Mary Mead – to pick up on parallels between the case at hand and some village incident. Some of these are minor, but some aren’t at all and are horrifying (such as the village lady who seems to have killed her own children for insurance money!); Miss Marple certainly has a more cynical take on the world than Poirot.

Miss Marple also finds the truth via knowledge that would be considered “feminine”, and which may have been overlooked by other detectives. Gardening and flowers make repeat appearances, and things like clothing styles and dieting are relevant – the efforts which women at the time, and now, are encouraged to make to present themselves to the world.
The first six stories are fairly straightforwardly told, but the next six, which began to appear a year-and-a-half after the last one, start to play with the armchair detective format. Christie also uses the varying personalities and opinions of the characters to highlight their foibles – yes, even with Miss Marple – and to create humour.
As with any short story collection, the quality of the stories varies, but the witty writing and engaging framing story means they are always a pleasure to read. Some of the stories here would rank among Christie’s best short fiction, in my opinion. Essential for those who would like to start reading her short stories, and for those who want a reminder of how funny Christie can be. The quintessential armchair detective style short stories.

If you only read one story…

…read The Herb of Death. The perfect combination of clever detection with the fun of an unconventional armchair detective story.

The Tuesday Night Club

The beginning of the club – we start with Sir Henry, of course. He presents a tricky poisoning case to the group. A family all ate the same dinner, but only one of them got poisoned. The central clue is a sneaky textual one, classic Christie in that the exact phrasing makes a difference. The style of the “problem” is very fact-based, instead of being a personal recollection, since of course it’s based on police records. Raymond West actually proposes a decent false solution, and the case has an impressive amount of possibilities for being so short.

The Idol House of Astarte

Here we switch to a more standard narrative with Dr Pender’s story – a fairly simple impossible crime with lots of atmosphere. The host of a house party is stabbed, even though no one saw anyone approach him. The setting, on the edge of Dartmoor, is well described, and the impromptu costume party that ends with the murder is amusing. The explanation for the weapon is a bit inaccessible to modern readers, but the solution to the impossibility will likely be the first thing that any seasoned reader will think of.

Ingots of Gold

Even more colourful narration here with novelist Raymond West’s tale. Sprinklings of Cornish atmosphere and an adventurous feel, since the story involves stolen gold, smuggling, and Spanish galleons. No doubt Raymond would insist that a boyish adventure tale would be the last thing he’d write, but he seems quite good at it! The actual mystery is a bit thin here – the main clue has passed from common into uncommon knowledge by now, and it seems completely unconnected to figuring out the truth behind the main suspect’s perfect alibi for a kidnapping. Lots of good examples of Miss Marple ragging on her nephew though.

The Bloodstained Pavement

This one is my favourite of the first six. Artist Joyce Lemprière tells her story, also set in Cornwall. The first part of Joyce’s tale has the appearance of a ghost story. While painting in a seaside village, she sees droplets of blood appearing from nowhere on the pavement – seemingly a portent of the death of one of the people she witnessed meeting in the village. Of course, Miss Marple works out that the truth is far more horrifying than ghosts.
The theme of colour runs through this story, fittingly for an artist narrator. The true scheme at work is the essence of Christie deception, and will be developed further in novel form later.

Mousehole by Edgar Rowley Smart; Keele University Art Collection;
Christie has transformed the quaint-sounding “Mousehole” into “Rathole”, so she seems to be having fun even in this dark story. She gives very few details about how Joyce Lemprière paints; this painting is the right time period at least, so perhaps the style may have been similar?

Motive v Opportunity

And now for my least favourite, narrated by lawyer Mr Petherick. A will Mr Petherick witnessed is mysteriously found blank after it’s retreived. But those with the opportunity to substitute it are the ones who would have benefited, whereas thosle who would want to invalidate it had no opportunity for a switch.
Miss Marple claims that the problem he presents is “…a catch. So like a lawyer!”, so it continues the trend of the narration fitting the character.
Even for a short story, the crime shown here is weak. Also, it’s unbelievable that it would actually succeed as it does. The culprits should be able to accomplish their aim in a much safer and more legal way.

The Thumb Mark of St Peter

A rather depressing setting for this story, livened up by Miss Marple’s rambling and slightly eccentric narration. According to village gossip, Miss Marple’s niece has poisoned her husband, so it’s time for Miss Marple to figure out who really did the deed, with the help of God and fish. Christie really shows off her knowledge of poisons here – the solution is not accessible for those of us without that training. Unfortunately the culprit is disappointing.
It’s the dinner party setting that provides the fun here. Christie actually pokes gentle fun at Miss Marple here, but of course she gets the last word, and perfectly encapsulates the central thesis of her detection method:

‘Dash it all. Aunt Jane,’ said Raymond, ‘don’t spoil all the romance. Joyce and I aren’t like the milkman and Annie.’
‘That is where you make a mistake, dear,’ said Miss Marple. ‘Everybody is very much alike, really. But fortunately, perhaps, they don’t realize it. ’

The Blue Geranium

We enter a new dinner party setting here. The newly introduced Colonel Bantry narrates another apparent ghost story, where a bedridden woman dies – seemingly of fright – due to a ghost that changes the colour of her wallpaper. We already reach high levels of inter-party banter, as Mrs Bantry’s opinion of one suspect forms a subtle clue.
The story is a bit hokey and doesn’t have the proper space to unfold its impossible crime angle, leaving its workings vague. But the new (and returning) characters are introduced excellently.

The Companion

In Dr Lloyd’s tale, the paid companion of a wealthy woman apparently drowns in an accident – but an eyewitness claims she was deliberately killed. After returning to England, Dr Lloyd investigates, but only finds more mystery.
Though the doctor does not make much of an impression as a narrator, I find this story quite affecting and unsettling. Like The Bloodstained Pavement, the trick seen here would also become the seed for future Christie novels. The melancholy tone works as a nice contrast for some of the other stories in the collection.

The Four Suspects

Sir Henry Clithering narrates here, so once again the story is a little less personal. Dr Rosen shelters in the peaceful English village of King’s Gnaton after shattering a German crime ring leaves him a hunted man. But despite his seclusion, he is killed. Which of the four suspects close to him is the traitor?
This is essentially a code-cracking story, and unfortunately the code is not very good, requiring either obscure knowledge or a basic level of attention to solve. It’s chiefly memorable for its character moments: here is where Mrs Bantry and Miss Marple really bond, and there’s also much more discussion of the impact of the cloud of suspicion on the innocent.
It’s interesting that Sir Henry had all the notes and evidence for this case immediately to hand. My suspicion is that he came to stay with the Bantrys for the sole purpose of consulting Miss Marple. It’s also very noticeable how much he unwinds in the stories set after his case is resolved.

A Christmas Tragedy

Miss Marple once again tells a story. While staying at a spa for health reasons, Miss Marple sets out to prove that George Sanders killed his wife Gladys, despite his cast-iron alibi.
The stories told by Miss Marple are always the dark ones – would we expect anything less? As well as the murder, there are two deaths of natural causes; Miss Marple is also relentlessly cynical. It’s her lively narration (and the shocked reactions of her listeners) that keeps the story from getting too grim. In fact this is an excellent impossible alibi tale with some very subtle clues, and a lot of complexity packed into a small space.

The Herb of Death

At last, Mrs Bantry is persuaded to unfold her tale. As she insists, she is no Scheherezade, and so the guests will have to do a bit of digging to find the story. The guests at a country house come down with food poisoning after some foxglove is included in the sage-and-onion stuffing, and the young ward of the house’s owner dies. A tragic accident, or something more sinister?
This is my favourite of all the Thirteen Problems. Christie turns her attention to the format of the armchair detective story itself, and deconstructs it – all the ingredients of a whodunnit are here, just revealed in bits and pieces through question and answer, rather than a coherent story. But it works wonderfully, and allows the dinner guests to really show off their personalities as they work to extract the story. And it’s also really funny.

The Affair at the Bungalow

Having already shaken the foundation of the after-dinner story, Christie now shatters it completely. It’s the ditzy actress Jane Helier’s turn to tell a story. But it’s so confusing that even Miss Marple appears to be left clueless.
It’s impossible to discuss the story without spoiling it a bit, so I’ll do so. After possibly going too far in showing an incomprehensible story, Christie takes the final step and places the solution within the dinner party itself – outside the boundaries established for the problems. It’s brilliantly done (and once again, very funny), but the story really is so incoherent that this problem is a bit less enjoyable to read than the others.

Death By Drowning

The weird one at the end. Some time after the dinner party, Miss Marple herself asks Sir Henry to investigate the death of a woman in the village, who had been thrown into the river. The culprit seems obvious, but Miss Marple has a different suspect in mind.
An odd story in many ways. Miss Marple only briefly appears in it to set Sir Henry investigating, and the story also mostly centres on the lower-class folk of the village. Christie acquits herself fairly well here – no impenetrable dialect and no mockery (what low standards classic crime forces us to expect…) – but the story is nothing special.

Other opinions:

Ah Sweet Mystery: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V
Bitter Tea and Mystery
In Search of the Classic Mystery
Clothes in Books: The Idol House of Astarte, A Christmas Tragedy, The Bloodstained Pavement
Countdown John’s Christie Journal
Mysteries, Short and Sweet

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Chalkletters

    I thoroughly enjoyed this summary, as someone who’s been reading (listening to) these stories for over half my life. The (probably BBC) radio adaptations were my intro to Christie. Mum stopped Motive V Opportunity before Miss Marple’s explanation and asked me how it had been done. (I had no idea, but she picked the right one, because the solution to Motive V Opportunity is pretty kid-friendly).

    I agree that I love the Herb of Death – puts me in mind of Five Little Pigs in terms of Agatha Christie doing interesting things with the traditional format.

    I also think Death by Drowning sets up the future Miss Marple novels well, given how often they feature officials (often but not always Sir Henry) making exceptions to bring Miss Marple in on cases.

    1. Velleic

      That’s great! 😀 Radio adaptations are a big gap in my experience of classic crime. Are they narrated by Joan Hickson? I should try and listen to them sometime.
      Your point about Death By Drowning is very interesting, I hadn’t considered that. Maybe this is where Miss Marple gets the confidence to intervene in “live” cases. (That said she is very forthright in A Christmas Tragedy, but then she was an eye-witness.) Certainly Sir Henry is her biggest fan from Death By Drowning onwards, though he already trusted her.

      1. Chalkletters

        Having done a little research, I can’t actually find evidence that radio adaptations of these existed. Maybe I’m looking under the wrong name, or maybe it was an audiobook rather than a radio adaptation. (Mum definitely did have other Christie radio adaptations, so I’ve assumed they all were, but that may not be the case.)

        I do love Miss Marple’s slowly widening circle of police officers and other men in positions of authority who trust her.

        1. Velleic

          Saw someone else recently mentioned they liked June Whitfield as Marple and lo and behold:
          So maybe it’s these.
          Yes it’s very gratifying to see Miss Marple’s rise to appreciation given just how much she is dismissed in the first story in this collection.

Leave a Reply