#22 – Parker Pyne Investigates

The newspaper advertisement reads:


PARKER PYNE. 17 Richmond Street.

We follow twelve people, unhappy in one way or another, as they consult with Mr. J. Parker Pyne, former government statistician, who believes that unhappiness can be classified into five main groups and that once he has diagnosed the problem and prescribed a course of treatment the cure is practically guaranteed.

The stories presented are:

1. The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife

2. The Case of the Discontented Soldier

3. The Case of the Distressed Lady

4. The Case of the Discontented Husband

5. The Case of the City Clerk

6. The Case of the Rich Woman or Can’t Buy Me Love

7. Have You Got Everything You Want? or Robbery on the Orient Express

8. The Gate of Baghdad

9. The House at Shiraz

10. The Pearl of Price

11. Death on the Nile (no, not that one!)

12. The Oracle at Delphi

Parker Pyne is an interesting character who manipulates people and circumstances in order to bring about his clients’ happiness. The first six stories take place in England and arise from clients visiting him at his London office. The second six stories all take place during a trip to and from the Middle East in locations that Christie would have visited with her second husband.

The first half are stronger stories because they fit the specific template that Christie created for the character and they are the ones I prefer, in particular 2, 4 and 6.

Recurring character development

J. Parker Pyne

Is “large, not to say fat, bald head, strong glasses, and little twinkling eyes”.

Has a contact within the Secret Service.

Miss Lemon

Parker Pyne’s secretary, described as “a forbidding-looking young woman with spectacles”.

Mrs Oliver

The sensationalist novelist who has written forty-six successful works of fiction, all best seller in England and America, and freely translated into French, German, Italian, Hungarian, Finnish, Japanese, and Abyssinian, is now working for Parker Pyne.

Signs of the Times

Parker Pyne says that Mrs Packington would pay two hundred guineas for an operation (1). A reminder that in the UK we are very fortunate to have had the National Health Service since 1948.

Parker Pyne cites Lady Hester Stanhope when asked is Lady Esther Carr’s way of life is suitable for a well-born lady (9). Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839), niece of the unmarried prime minister William Pitt the Younger, acted as his private secretary and official hostess. She conducted the first modern archaeological excavation in the Holy Land at Ashkelon in 1815. She settled in what is now Lebanon and lived there until her death.

The quote at the end of “The Pearl of Price” is from David Garrick (1717-1779), English actor, playwright, theatre manager and producer.

Mrs Peters enjoys reading “The River Launch Mystery” (12). This is another of Christie’s references to fictional works.

References to previous works

In “Have You Got Everything You Want?” Parker Pyne reverses Hercule Poirot’s journey from “Murder on the Orient Express”.

Vintage Reading Challenge

Fulfils “What – title contains two words beginning with the same letter”.












#21 – Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?

Bobby Jones, having duffed his golf ball into the sea, is surprised to find a dying man on a cliff ledge. While his playing partner goes for assistance he is left to find a photography of a beautiful woman in the man’s pocket and to hear his final words “Why didn’t they ask Evans?”

The inquest returns a verdict of accidental death but following an attempt on his life Bobby and his friend, Lady Frances “Frankie” Derwent begin their own investigation. This involves faking a road traffic accident, impersonation of a chauffeur and a solicitor, various flirtations, before they get to the bottom of a ruthless conspiracy and eventually learn the meaning of the dead man’s words.

This is an entertaining romp, in the mould of “The Secret Adversary”, with Bobby and Frankie as Tommy and Tuppence Mark II.

This is the first Agatha Christie I ever read as for some reason that is what my Dad picked off the shelf when I asked to try one, although other early reads were then “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” and “Peril at End House”.

Signs of the Times

Bobby Jones is not “the American-born master of the game”. Robert “Bobby” Tyre Jones Jr. (1902 – 1971) was a successful amateur golfer who later co-founded the Masters Tournament at Augusta National. In 1930 he became the only player to win the original golfing Grand Slam (The Amateur Championship, The Open Championship, The US Open, and the US Amateur).

Bobby’s father quotes Shakespeare to the effect that a serpent’s tooth, etc. The full quote from “King Lear” is “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child”.

“The Third Bloodstain” is one of Bobby’s favourite works of fiction and he has also enjoyed “The Case of the Murdered Archduke” and “The Strange Adventure of the Florentine Dagger”.  These are all fictional works but the first title has been used by Kel Richards for a 1995 novel and “The Florentine Dagger” is a 1935 film noir.

Reference is also made to a novel of Ouida’s and “John Halifax, Gentleman”. Ouida was the pseudonym of Maria Louise Ramé (1839-1908) who wrote more than forty novels and the latter is an 1856 novel by Dinah Craik (1826-1887).

Roger has bought his nephew a Hornby train. Frank Hornby patented the construction toy set Meccano in 1901 and his company made their first clockwork train under the Hornby brand in 1920.

When discussing whether people have a double Adolf Beck and the Lyons Mail are mentioned. The former was the unfortunate victim of a case of mistaken identity, serving five years in prison for frauds which he had not committed. His innocence was only established in 1904 when he was tried a second time for similar crimes. The latter was a 1931 film based on Charles Reade’s 1854 play “The Courier of Lyons” which itself was based on a historical case of mistaken identity where it is possible that Joseph Lesurques was executed in place of André Dubosq.

The Wells’ story referred to about a prince building a palace around his wife’s tomb is “The Pearl of Love” (1925) by H. G. Wells.

Frankie tells Bobby to stop droning on as though he were recommending a case to the Girls’ Friendly Society. This is an organisation founded in 1875 with the original aim of addressing the problems of working-class out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Now its three bullet points are: confidence, growth, and friendship.

Mr Spragge wags his finger at “You Bright Young People”. Also known as Bright Young Things, this was the nickname given by the tabloid press to a group of bohemian aristocrats and socialites in the 1920s.

The Dorcas Society get a surprise at the end of the book. This is a group, normally church based, with a mission of providing clothing to the poor.

References to previous works

The title is similar to the overheard suggestion that helps Poirot solve the case in “Lord Edgware Dies” – “If only they’d asked…”

Vintage Reading Challenge

Fulfils “Where – in a locked room”.












Vintage Reading Challenge – November 2018

The Hangman’s Handyman by Hake Talbot

Fulfils “Where – on an island”

Nancy Garwood awakens slowly, still dressed for dinner, with vague memories of a tables laid for thirteen. She descends from her room into a seemingly deserted house…

Enter washed-up gambler Rogan Kincaid, a late arrival to the party, who helps her find their fellow guests. They reveal that at dinner their host, Jackson B. Frant, told the story of a family curse, complete with historic manuscripts, then repeatedly taunted his skeptical half-brother to curse him. Pushed beyond his limits Lord Tethryn cried out “Od rot you, Jack, Od rot you!” whereupon Frant immediately fell down dead.

Kincaid, with secrets of his own, must decide who he can trust as events take an even more sinister turn straight from the pages of Edgar Allan Poe. Can he survive an encounter with the Hangman’s Handyman and get to the truth?

A very atmospheric book as the guests, police, and pressman start to question just what might be possible and how the inexplicable could be explained. Kincaid is an interesting character – for me a cross between Bogart’s Sam Spade and an Alistair MacLean lone-wolf narrator – as is Bobby Chatterton, an uncertain young man with a penchant for magic tricks with a point.

I look forward to reading Talbot’s more celebrated “The Rim of the Pit” in the New Year.

Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles

Although first published in 1931, it was only translated into Swedish in 1974 when it won the Martin Beck award so fulfils “Why – it won an award of any sort”

“It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter. Murder is a serious business. The slightest slip may be disastrous. Dr Bickleigh had no intention of risking disaster.”

So begins Francis Iles’ (Anthony Berkeley Cox) cornerstone of the inverted mystery sub-genre (not a whodunnit but a willtheygeddawaywithit). We follow Edmund Bickleigh as he turns from overpowered worm to overpowering superman (at least in his own estimation) and attempts to fulfil one of his more realistic nocturnal reveries.

I  re-read this specifically to help complete the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge and my memory of it was hazy, although parts did come back to me. It is acknowledged as classic but I didn’t enjoy it all that much. As with any inverted mystery I found myself rooting for the Doctor, but actually he is a very unpleasant specimen, and while his wife is no better, she is actually right about a crucial point.

For my money the later “Trial and Error” written by Cox under the Anthony Berkeley pseudonym is much more good fun and much more surprising.

#20 – The Listerdale Mystery

A collection of short stories, mostly light-hearted and fun.

1. The Listerdale Mystery – Mrs St Vincent finds a property with a cheap rent but what has happened to the owner?

2. Philomel Cottage -why is a woman glad in her dreams when her husband is killed by an old flame?

3. The Girl in the Train – George Rowland returns to the family seat and finds adventure.

4. Sing a Song of Sixpence – a retired barrister leaves his cul-de-sac to honour a decade old promise.

5. The Manhood of Edward Robinson – a young man grows a spine.

6. Accident – a retired policeman follows up an old case.

7. Jane in Search of a Job – in which a young lady follows up an unusual advertisement.

8. A Fruitful Sunday – a young couple get more than they bargained for.

9. Mr. Eastwood’s Adventure – an author goes out in search of a story.

10. The Golden Ball – George Dundas has a holiday with surprising consequences.

11. The Rajah’s Emerald – James Bond’s first exploit!

12. Swan Song – the world renowned Paula Nazorkoff agrees to a private performance at a country house.

An entertaining collection with no ghosts and ghouls in sight, so for me much better than the recently reviewed The Hound of Death.

Signs of the Times

Gerald Martin refers to “this Bluebeard’s chamber business” (2). A traditional French folktale tells how a young woman tries to escape from her husband, Bluebeard, who has already killed a number of previous wives.

The newly unemployed George Rowland notes that he won’t even be given the dole due to the quality of his clothes (3). Unemployment benefits were first introduced in the UK in under the National Insurance Act 1911. A “seeking work” test was added in 1921 and an element of means testing in 1922.

George meets a man whose hair cut is en brosse i.e. close shaven and with a moustache of the Hohenzollern persuasion (3). The Hohenzollerns were a European royal family, one branch of which became rulers of Prussia and then Germany. The type of moustache can be seen in this picture of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Sir Edward is reading a volume of Lombroso when his evening is interrupted (4). Cesare Lombroso (1835 – 1909) was an Italian criminologist who rejected the classical theory that crime was a characteristic trait of human nature but was instead inherited and that a criminal could be identified by physical (congenital) defects.

Miss Crabtree’s handbag contained, amongst other things, three newspaper cuttings about Joanna Southcott’s box and an “Old Moore’s Almanack” (4). Joanna Southcott (1750 – 1814) claimed to be the Woman of the Apocalypse mentioned in the Book of Revelation. On her death she left behind a sealed box of prophecies with the instruction that it should only be opened at a time of national crisis and in the presence of all the bishops of the Church of England. Psychic researcher Harry Price claimed to have opened the box in 1927 but it is disputed as to whether this was the genuine article. “Old Moore’s Almanack” is an annual astrological book, first published in Britain by Francis Moore in 1697. It should not be confused with “Old Moore’s Almanac” first published in Ireland in Ireland by Theophilus Moore. Both titles are still published today.

Dorothy looks like Cleopatra, Semiramis, and Zenobia rolled into one (8). Semiramis was the legendary wife of Onnes and Ninus and succeeded her second husband to the throne of the Assyrian empire. Zenobia (c.240 – c.274) was queen of the Palmyrene empire in Syria.

The quote at the end of (8) refers to Proverbs 31:10.

Anthony reflects that his editor is likely to change the title of his story to something rotten life “Murder Most Foul” without so much as asking him. Ironically this became the title of Margaret Rutherford’s third outing as Miss Marple which was loosely based on “Mrs McGinty’s Dead”.

James Bond’s fragment of poetry “thanking heaven fasting, for a good man’s love” is from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”.

Paula is happy that the abominable English piano has been replaced by an Erard (12) Sébastien Érard (1752 – 1831) was French instrument maker of German origin who pioneered the modern piano.

References to previous works

The Charge of the Light Brigade is alluded to in (3) and in Lord Edgware Dies.

Anthony Eastwood (4) quotes from “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” as did Mr Winburn in “The Lamp” in The Hound of Death.

Vintage Reading Challenge

Fulfils “Why – has been on your To Be Read Pile”.