Tommy and Tuppence Beresford have just moved house and Tuppence is going through some old books when she finds that someone has underlined letters in a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Black Arrow” which spell out the message “Mary Jordan did not die naturally. It was one of us. I think I know which one”.
This is a good hook and comes at the end of the first chapter entitled “Mostly Concerning Books” which will resonate with any book lover.
However from thereon it is downhill all the way. Rambling conversation follows rambling conversation. Characters appear once and then never again.
Somehow all their new neighbours know about they did in the war. Tommy has to very pointedly remind Tuppence (and the reader) who Betty is. Tuppence says “It’s a crime we’ve got to solve. Go back to the past to solve it – to where it happened and why it happened. That’s a thing we’ve never tried before” which completely ignores “By The Pricking of My Thumbs” (it makes sense therefore that this is the only of their previous cases which is not mentioned).
I often add a separate spoiler post, but here this isn’t applicable as I couldn’t even tell you what was supposed to have happened!
There’s a (surely) unintended ironic criticism of the novel in the penultimate chapter:
“All those clues,” said Andrew. “You could make a story out of them – even a book.”
“Too many names, too complicated,” said Deborah. “Who’d read a book like that?”
“You’d be surprised,” said Tommy, “what people will read – and enjoy!”
This is another of the handful of late books that are for completists only. You’d be better off reading any of the books mentioned in the book than the book itself and the Christie estate would do well to cease publishing it immediately on the grounds that it is unrepresentative of the great lady’s work and could put a first time reader off for life.
Recurring Character Development
They previously lived at Bartons Acre.
Their London house was bombed in their absence during WWII.
Tuppence had an Aunt Sarah.
Tuppence is over seventy.
Their daughter, Deborah’s, twins turn mentioned halfway through have metamorphosed into Andrew, fifteen, Janet, eleven, and Rosalie, seven, by the end of the book.
His wife , Amy, died some years ago.
Signs of the Times
Though there are contradictory references to when things happened in the past, for example when Tommy says that the events of “The Secret Adversary” were “…at least sixty of seventy years ago. More than that, even” when we know that was set in 1920, it seems most reasonable that the census relevant to the death of Mary Jordan was in 1911 and that the recent census “only last year, or was it the year before last” was in 1971. This idea of being able to get information on a historic crime because it happened at the time of a census is actually really good, although as Tommy says you would need to know the right people as the granular data is sealed for one hundred years.
Tuppence remembers reading “Androcles and the Lion” by Andrew Lang when she was eight. Lang (1844-1912) edited The Langs’ Fairy Books which comprised 25 volumes (1889-1913) and this particular tale was in The Animal Story Book (1896).
Tuppence refers to “Mrs Molesworth, The Cuckoo Clock, Four Winds Farm-” Mary Louisa Molesworth (1839-1921) has been called “the Jane Austen of the nursery”.
She also refers to “those stories about schools, where the children were always very rich – L. T. Meade, I think”. Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith (1844-1914) was primarily known for her books for young people such as “A World of Girls” (1886) but for fans of detection she is remembered for her work with Clifford Halifax and Robert Eustace.
Tuppence remembers Carter’s Little Liver Pills. This was a patent medicine invented in 1868 by Samuel J. Carter of Pennsylvania. “Liver” was taken out of the name in 1951 as the Federal Trade Commission said it was deceptive. A common saying was “He’s got more (fill in the blank) than Carter has Little Liver Pills”.
Tuppence refers to books by E. Nesbit including The Amulet (The Story of the Amulet – 1906) and The Psamayad (Five Children and It – 1902).
Beatrice refers to “the Marlborough House set”. This was the group of people associated with the future Edward VII when he lived there.
References to previous works
Christie has already used the quote about the gates of Damascus in the Parker Pyne short story “The Gate of Baghdad”.
Mention is made of “the Jane Finn business” from “The Secret Adversary”, Mrs Blenkinsop and Sans Souci from “N or M” and also a spoiler for that book.
Tommy has heard rumours about the events of “Passenger to Frankfurt” which links together what are by far Christie’s worst two novels.