Tag: Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie

Witness for the Prosecution

While in London, I went to see a new production of Agatha Christie’s great and very twisty play, Witness for the Prosecution. This version of the play was set in an actual courthouse, and some of the audience members (though not us) got to sit in the jury seats, which was so cool.

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Books that take you places.

TRACEE: I’ve had travel on the brain recently, which led me to think about my favorite travel based mysteries. Not mysteries set in exotic locations, but books where the premise is intertwined with travel not merely destination. Agatha Christie wrote two classics with this premise: Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. (I’ll confess that I have several non mystery favorites that rely on travel, including Larry McMurtrie’s Lonesome Dove, certainly a 1,000 mile cattle drive qualifies!)  Any favorite voyage-themed books on your list?  PAULA: I’m a sucker for pilgrimages stories of all kinds: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, Hector and the Search for Happiness by Francois Lelord, The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo, to name just a few…. TRACEE: Ah yes, The Alchemist, that was a great book. And according to legend Paulo Coelho wrote in in two weeks, writing straight from the soul. I suppose that should be a novel in itself. PAULA: He made the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage and wrote about it in a book about that called The Pilgrimage…loved that too.  ROBIN: Bill Bryson’s books come immediately to mind. A Walk In The Woods made me want to hike the Appalachian Trail. I read In A Sunburned Country right before my first trip to Australia. Actually, now that I’m thinking of it, I’m a sucker for travel-as-a-metaphor, self-discovery stories like On The Road by Jack Kerouac and Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I love adventure travel myself so throw a trek across mountains or through a desert in a book and I’ll read it. SUSAN: I loved Lonesome Dove, Tracee, though it is responsible for my fear of snakes. And water. I also loved True Grit, the movies. That’s a sort of quest story. There’s a book called Seeds by Richard Horan about his quest to accumulate seeds from the trees on the homes of various writers and I love that, though it’s not a mystery. I also love Stephen King’s The Stand. I’ve never read The Alchemist, though I know I should.  MICHELE:My first travel read was as a girl. Toujours Diane introduced me to European travel and sounded so sophisticated. My Love Affair with England and other books by Susan Allen Toth were a grand orientation to traveling in England. Of course I love the books that are journeys of growth and courage. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and Wild by Cheryl Strayed (which I’ve called the scariest book I ever read) were both terrific reads. And like Robin, I loved A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, which I read on a hammock under a tree in the Wellfleet Audubon campgrounds while I was grounded with strep throat. Somehow, I didn’t feel “confined” as I vicariously trekked through the Appalachian Trail. But don’t all books take us on a voyage somewhere? TRACEE: I agree that all books take us on a voyage, which is why I started to think about books that have literal voyages in them and how they are different and in the end, not different. The voyage of the mind is as impactful as the physical one. Which basically means reading is an awesome mental gymnastic.  I’ll add the Life of Pi to the list. A voyage of the mind and body.  CATE: I recently read The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian which was a really interesting, frightening take on the journey story. I also learned a bit about murder laws in Dubai and why you never want to die on a plane. Anita Shriev’s The Pilot’s Wife certainly had me thinking about the life and double lives possible when travel is baked into a character’s existence.  ALEXIA:In addition to Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, I’d add Strangers on a Train, The Lady Vanishes, Throw Momma from the Train, and Mrs. Winterbourne to my list of favorites. Hmmm, I sense a theme forming. You may want to avoid traveling with me.Less lethal travel favorites include On the Road, Travels with Charlie, Heart of Darkness (which is pretty lethal, I guess), The Grapes of Wrath, and The Island of Lost Maps. Which, strictly speaking, is about rare map theft, rather than travel, but maps make me think of travel. ALISON:  Such a fun question! I love books set someplace I either know really well or don’t know at all. I read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises on a flight to Madrid a few years ago. When I was flying to Utah several times a year, I fell in love with Terry Tempest Williams. She’s a master of painting scenes of the intermountain west. When Women Were Birds and Refuge still are two of my favorite books. When I lived in Leningrad/St. Petersburg, I fell in love with Ivan Turgenev after reading A Sportsman’s Sketches, which included so many portraits of place in Russia. On a lighter note, Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly was an absolute delightful introduction to life in Denmark…and I didn’t have to step out into the bitter Billund winter. TRACEE: I’m busy taking notes here, a few of these I’d like to re-read and quite a few I haven’t, and can’t believe it! And Alexia, yes, for the record, Heart of Darkness should be bumped out of a less lethal category. That’s one I haven’t read since high school. Probably should re-visit.  Thanks everyone for chiming in…. lots of good rainy day reads here.        

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Our first Agatha Christie

I have a very vivid memory of the first Agatha Christie I read, which was The A.B.C. Murders. At that time, I was in Mexico City, visiting my aunt. My aunt was a fabulous and yet somewhat disreputable person who was engaged in activities that bordered, or perhaps crossed, into the illegal. So when her young niece came to visit, she wanted to make sure I did not get into trouble, and so when she went out, she would lock me into her apartment. This may explain the anxiety in enclosed spaces I feel today, but anyway, she had a huge library of mysteries. Maigret. Dorothy Sayers. And Agatha Christie. So one day I picked up The A.B.C. Murders and was just blown away. Immediately I set about reading all of them and I have the fondest memories of sitting in an apartment in the middle of Mexico City and reading about these crimes in the British countryside.  So, with that in mind, I asked my fellow Miss Demeanors if they could remember the first Agatha Christie they read, and this is what they said: Alexia: I know it was one of the Hercule Poirot mysteries but I don’t remember which one. I was in 7th or 8th grade when I read it. Paula: Honestly I don’t know. I feel like I’ve always known all the stories. My mother read mysteries, so they were always around the house, especially when my father was overseas. So I probably got started in the third grade when Dad was in Korea, and finished up when he was in Vietnam. By then I just read whatever she read: Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Nero Wolfe, Perry Mason, etc. I loved them all.I do remember finding The Sensuous Woman by J under her pillow back when I was in high school and sneaking it out to read it…but that’s another story. Robin: My parents used to go on shopping sprees at our local library’s annual fundraising book sales to get collections by particular authors. Agatha Christie was one of them and I suspect it was because of me. We saw the 1974 version of the film adaptation of “Murder on The Orient Express” and I loved it, even though I was too young to understand the historical context. Although it did spark my interest in learning about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and reading true crime stories. I’d read 3 or 4 of the Poirot books when my parents took me to see the movie “Murder By Death.” Is it sacrilege to say the Agatha Christie-inspired spoof is still one of my all-time favorite mystery movies?  Alison:  The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. I then went on to read almost all the rest, but remember having trouble finishing Nemesis. One weekend when my husband (then fiancé) was in graduate school, and I was still in college, he was supposed to come visit me, but contracted a terrible cold and couldn’t get out of bed. I took the night train from Boston to Philadelphia and read Agatha Christie to him for almost two days straight. When I headed back to school, he was feeling better. I credit his recovery to the healing powers of a good mystery.  I’ve attached a picture of what is left of my collection. For some reason, Agatha Christie books tend to disappear.   Tracee: Sleeping Murder. Cate: : …And then there were none. Tracee: Now I’m second guessing myself. Perhaps Death on the Nile! Michele: Murder on the Orient Express. So there you have it! Thanks for coming on my journey this week. Do you remember the first Agatha Christie you read?

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In the woods with Agatha Christie

I spend a lot of time wandering around the woods in my backyard, so I was especially delighted to visit Agatha Christie’s woods, which are like something out of a fairy tale. The trees are dark and old and mysterious. But then you’ll turn a sudden bend and find yourself in a surprisingly lush and cozy spot. I was there in October so Hydrangea Walk and the Dahlia Border were not in bloom. But there was still so much to see, such as a flower called a “Red Hot Poker.”   Mainly the sense I got was of peacefulness. There were benches all over where you could sit and think. My husband and I climbed to the Top Garden, and there saw a view that I think must be one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. There were cows in front of us, the Dart River stretched below, and everything smelled fresh.  Many of the trails were quite steep. And the other thing that struck me was how many determined people, some of them with canes, one with a wheelchair, were clambering around. Almost everyone there was smiling, I believe because Agatha Christie is so beloved. You had a real sense that people made an effort to be there and were enjoying being in her presence. That led me to think, for my own writing, about what it means to be beloved. There are (possibly) better writers than Agatha Christie, and yet very few writers inspire that sort of love. Inspiring. Tomorrow my fellow Miss Demeanors will discuss the first Agatha Christie book we read.  

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Murder at Greenway House

To get to Greenway House,  my husband and I took a 3-hour train ride southwest from London, to Totnes. Then we took half hour taxi ride to Dartmouth, and then a half hour ferry boat ride to  Greenway House. It was not as arduous as it sounds, however, because the Devon countryside is lovely, and as soon as I set foot in Dartmouth I felt myself tingle with the sense that I’d been there with Agatha Christie. So many of her stories have been set in this part of England.  I have it in my mind that poor Gladys from A Pocketful of Rye was enticed to go to Torquay, though that may be wrong. But Agatha Christie herself grew up in Torquay, and this area of the country was clearly important to her. How many of her stories are set on the seaside, on coves and beaches, with pavilions.  Just to give a few examples, one of the bodies in the A.B.C. Murders shows up in Churston, which is only two miles from Greenway. In  Five Little Pigs, a murder occurs in a house overlooking the Dart River. And in Dead Man’s Folly, the very boat house at Greenway (pictured above) is described as the place where the first victim is discovered. (I don’t know who that man is, but he was quite pleasant.) It was so much fun to see the world that I’ve pictured in my imagination, and tomorrow I’ll discuss the woods!   

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Dining with Agatha Christie

One of my favorite rooms at Greenway House was the dining room. Here was where Agatha Christie celebrated holidays with her husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, her daughter Rosalind and her grandson, Matthew.  You’ll note there’s a small pitcher in front of Agatha Christie’s seat, whereas the other settings have wine glasses.  That’s because Agatha Christie was a teetotaler. Rather than alcohol,  she preferred to drink Devonshire cream. (Just as a side note, I looked up the calorie count on  Devonshire cream and it’s 73 calories a tablespoon!) She also liked to drink a glass or two of Devonshire cream while she wrote. Perhaps this is a secret to a long career. At one end of the dining room was this intriguing little knick knack, that I assume is a raven. The whole house is awash with knick knacks and I was told that, when the National Trust was going through the house, they uncovered Agatha Christie’s Order of the British Empire medal under a pile of books. Incidentally, there is a person who has the job of being a Writer-in-Residence at Greenway House and she is leading a writing workshop in which writers will be prompted to use objects in Agatha Christie’s collection as a starting point for their stories. How fabulous is that? Another lovely room was upstairs, where there is a collection of Agatha Christie’s first editions. I tried to find her typewriter, but the guide told me that she preferred to speak into a Dictaphone. Greenway House was where she went to relax after writing books. So not a lot of writing took place there. There’s also a closet full of her dresses and hats. Tomorrow I’ll discuss where murder took place at Greenway!

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Welcome to Agatha Christie week

 Earlier this month I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Greenway House, Agatha Christie’s summer home. For anyone who loves Agatha Christie (and I’m hoping there’s no one who doesn’t), it’s a treasure. What a treat to see the rooms where she wrote, to walk the woods where she hiked, and to visit the small villages on the Dart River that inspired some of her fiction. In fact, my husband and I stayed at a hotel that had been used in a 1984 version of Ordeal by Innocence. (I think. It also supposedly was slept in by Queen Mary II, though my husband’s convinced that’s impossible. But it was a fabulous hotel and why argue?) Anyway, if you look at the picture of the Dart River below, then look up and to the left, you’ll see Greenway tucked into the woods.  Below is a closer version of Greenway.House. It looks rather austere in this version, though in fact it’s surrounding by rolling hills and there are deck chairs out front where you can sit.  Once you go inside, you’re surrounded by coziness. This is a picture of the sitting room. To the left, which you can’t see, is a piano. (Agatha Christie was an accomplished pianist, but too shy to play in public.) Visitors are allowed to play on her piano as long as you don’t play Chopsticks. All around the room, in fact all around the house, are all sorts of knick knacks. Don’t you want to sit in this room for a spell?    One of my favorite rooms was the dining room, but I’ll get to that tomorrow. 

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Warm Winter Wishes

You may have guessed from my previous posts this week that I have winter issues. Christmas is one of my favorite holidays (Easter being the other) but I’d like it just fine if Christmas came in October. During the dark, cold stretch from late November to early March, I’d just as soon take a vacation from the world, crawl into a cave, and hibernate. But, since I am not a bear, I have to bundle up, go outside, and deal with it. Mysteries help me deal with winter. Solving puzzles (or following along with a brilliant detective and wondering how I missed that oh-so-obvious clue) keeps my brain from going as numb as my fingers. Singing Christmas songs off-key at the top of my lungs along with the all-Christmas music station as I drive back and forth to work also helps but I don’t like to admit that. Drinks that give me the warm fuzzies help, too. Let’s call them comfort drinks. I’m writing this post in the Hearth Room of the Deerpath Inn, one of my favorite places on the planet. I braved the cold tonight because I wanted an Adult Red Velvet Hot Chocolate—a cinnamon and candy cane concoction I saw posted to the Deerpath’s Instagram feed. However, by the time I got to the bar (Called “The Bar”. Really.) it was standing room only. On a Tuesday. With below-freezing temperatures. Everybody in town counts the Deerpath Inn among their favorite places. So, I headed upstairs to my happy place, the Hearth Room. The Hearth Room is exactly as you imagine it—British club room with a ginormous fireplace (complete with blazing fire, of course). Paintings of dogs and bucolic landscapes adorn the walls. Furniture of leather and dark wood. You expect Holmes and Watson to arrive any minute. The place begs to be the setting for a traditional mystery. It’s the perfect place to be on a chilly night. However, I couldn’t get my Red Velvet Hot Chocolate up here. No worries, though. The Deerpath Inn is the sort of place loathe to disappoint. I “settled” for plain hot chocolate with Koval bourbon and whipped cream. Who needs candy canes? A few sips of the chocolate-with-a-peppery-afterburn libation and I felt quite cozy. If I didn’t have to go work in the morning, I’d probably rent a room at the Inn then head upstairs to curl into a tight ball underneath a down comforter in one of their cozy, cozy beds. Since I do have to work tomorrow, I’ll finish my drink and my dinner then bundle up and make my way home (on foot. Don’t drink and drive.) Maybe I’ll read some Agatha Christie or P.D. James before snuggling into my own, somewhat less plush, bed to dream sweet dreams of temperate climes. (Actually, my dreams are bizarre. But never dull.) How do you deal with dark, cold days? Or do you love them? What are your favorite winter-themed mysteries? 

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A voyage into a fictional universe. I'm in.

Lazy summer days are a time to dream. What if dreams and reading merged and it was possible to transport yourself to any fictional place? If I had a chance to literally dive into a fictional locale and spend a few days I’d pick Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels. The settings are fictional London and – more importantly – classic novels including Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice.  Fforde does a fantastic job of making the well-known fictional settings come to life and at the same time allowing the reader to experience them as an outsider. The characters are trapped in the role but the reader isn’t! What fun to be there and participate in the novels from the sidelines. What fictional setting would you join?  SUSAN: This is probably not a huge surprise, but I’d go with Agatha Christie’s St. Mary Meade. I love living in a small village, and of course, I’d love to know Miss Marple. I feel like you have more room to be yourself, oddly enough, in a place where everyone knows you. People know who you are, so you don’t have to pretend to be someone else, if that makes. I drew on that in writing the village Maggie Dove lives in.      ALEXIA: Tough question. So many places to choose from. I agree with Susan; St. Mary Meade sounds cool. Midsomer County to meet DCI Barnaby is on the list, despite the body count. I’d like to visit Nero Wolfe’s brownstone to see his orchid collection. Wonderland and the Looking Glass world make the itinerary. Alice was my first literary hero. I still love her adventuresome spirit. I’d love to meet the Cheshire Cat and go to a mad tea party. But, if I have to pick only one fictional place to visit, I choose the Mos Eisley space cantina so I can hang out with Han Solo and Chewbacca and score a ride on the Millennium Falcon.  PAULA: I’d go to Castello Brown, the real-life 15th century castle in Portofino, where Elizabeth von Arnim set her 1922 novel The Enchanted April.It’s been my dream to rent a villa on the Italian Riviera for a month and invite all my friends and thereby set the stage for my own enchanted April. Someday….       CATE: I’d visit Macondo in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude. It’s warm (a must), all the locals have interesting family gossip, and there are magical yellow butterflies.  “At that time, Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs.”      ROBIN:  Derry, ME. An awful lot of sinister events occur in Stephen King’s bucolic creation. Runner up would be Santa Theresa, CA, Sue Grafton’s coastal community. I would love to have coffee with Kinsey Milhone and regale her with technical investigation techniques developed after the ’80’s.  MICHELE: I am also a fan of books set in English and Irish villages. I often try to visit the locations of books I have read when traveling. I made my husband look for Barberry Lane in San Francisco after our entire family devoured Armisted Maupin’s six book series “Tales of the City.” But right now, I would love to be transported to Louise Penny’s Three Pines village just over the Vermont border in Canada, even though it is nowhere near an ocean, my usual requirement. Three Pines is a fictional village that embraces the imperfections in people where friendships become like family bonds. Of course, it is not without conflict and bodies fall as routinely as the snow. You know what it means to “belong” if you’re lucky to live in Three Pines. TRACEE: I think you should ALL reconsider Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels….. once you are in them the rules allow transport to anything that has ever been written, including the not so glamorous text of a washing machine label. Here’s to fictional travel!

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Poisons

Were I to murder someone, I would choose poison as a weapon. (Note to my husband: chew carefully!) There are so many benefits. First of all, it’s not bloody. It requires no physical strength. And if you plan ahead, you don’t even need to be around. Also, it’s so hard to detect.  So you can imagine the pleasure I’m having reading Kathryn Harkup’s wonderful book, A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie. Harkup, who describes herself as a “chemist, author and Agatha Christie fanatic,” goes through 14 Christie novels, and explains the poisons used, the real-life cases that inspired Christie, and the occasional thing she got wrong. She also includes all sorts of weird information.  For example: Cleopatra considered poisoning herself with arsenic, but felt it would leave her corpse looking too unattractive, so she opted for the asp (though Harkup reports this would still not have been a pain-free way to die and her cadaver would have needed some cosmetic retouching.) In Sparkling Cyanide, there was a potential antidote on the dinner table in the form of sugar in champagne. She goes on to say that Rasputin (of Russian religious fanatic fame) might have survived the poisoning attempts against him because of all the Madeira he drank on his final night.  Then there’s the case of the real-life serial murderer Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, who used strychnine on his victims. When he was eventually hanged, in the 1890s, is it said that he last words were, “I am Jack the…”   Of course the best part of reading this book is having a chance to go over Agatha Christie’s great stories again, and with a guide who enjoys them so much. It makes me want to pick up one of my favorites, and perhaps I will. How about you? Do you have a favorite Agatha Christie?   

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