Book review: The Big Four by Agatha Christie

As any serious reader of hers can tell you, Agatha Christie couldn’t write thrillers. Her area was domestic murders in tidy living-rooms, performed by devious monsters usually acting alone or in pairs. Though she wasn’t a notable prose stylist – publishing at a rate of about one book a year, her writing isn’t very textured – she was a master of plot and caricature, populating ingenious stories with witty little character sketches.

Thrillers, however, were beyond her abilities, even though she tried them at various points throughout her life. Her scope as a storyteller, I think, just wasn’t large enough to encompass governments and secret societies. Couple this with her extreme political naiveté, conservatism and even racism (this book breaks one of Ronald Knox’s “ten commandments” for detective fiction, that no cheap Chinese caricature be used to add superficial atmosphere) and you’re left with possibly her worst novel, The Big Four.

Possibly taking a hint from Sax Rohmer, creator of Asian master-criminal Fu Manchu, the book follows Poirot and his Dr-Watson, Captain Hastings, as they unravel the plans of Li Chang Yen, a mysterious Chinese figure also known as Number Four. He leads the titular Big Four, a quartet of megalomaniacs; Number Two is an American, symbolised by a dollar sign, two stripes and a star (Christie’s Americans always amuse me; for one thing, they all have names like Abe and Elmer, and smoke fat cigars).

Number Three is a Frenchwoman. (Symbolised, I assume, by some onions, a baguette, and a note of surrender.) Number One, however, is a totally unknown master of disguise, present whenever a gruesome murder occurs. There’s lots of murders in this book; so many, in fact, that I half-realised how it was tied together before knowing: it originated as eleven short stories which were then boiled into one narrative.

Sadly, the transparency of this is a major flaw. The individual murders and their investigations are somewhat compelling; for instance, an early case involving a leg of mutton, bloody footprints and some figurines is clever in Christie’s usual sleight-of-hand way. But when presented as one plot, with a supposed mastering force, the novel grows monotonous in the extreme, especially when you realise that said mastering force will never be adequately explained. (We don’t get to know any of the “four” that well.)

Furthermore, Christie’s attempts at thriller-like adventures, in the style of such pulp magazines as Black Hand (which is name-checked here), are just silly. If a scene in a Chinatown basement, riddled with divans, trapdoors, secret exits and chain-smoking Orientals, doesn’t make you wince, you’ve a more credulous heart than I. Christie was probably trying for a Sherlock Holmes-type appeal, but the lack of depth and texture strangles that.

Also, Holmes isn’t Poirot. One can imagine Holmes climbing ivy-caked walls, disguising himself as his twin and jumping off of trains at the last moment. To picture our favourite fat little Belgian doing that, though, is absurd. Christie might as well have cast Miss Marple as Indiana Jones, high-kicking Arabs while her glasses-on-a-chain fly, before rescuing her flowered hat at the last moment. You wonder why this didn’t occur to Christie.

Although, as author Robert Barnard (A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie) observed in his summation of this book, it “was cobbled together at the lowest point in Christie’s life, with the help of her brother-in-law.” Clearly, then, like James Dean wearing leather to church, The Big Four was destined to be bad. Even Mark Gatiss, whose unenviable task it was to adapt it for an episode of David Suchet’s Poirot, called it “an almost unadaptable mess of a book”.

The only way it might have been saved, in my opinion, is if it stayed as eleven short stories, all published in one volume; omitted Poirot and Hastings in favour of, say, Tommy and Tuppence, the married sleuths whom Christie used for some of her thrillers; and revised the ending so that the big four remain shadowy (as well as removing some truly awful James Bond stuff, including, so help me God, a mountain lair with a secret boardroom).

The Big Four is a profoundly terrible book, unworthy of Christie and Poirot. At 160 pages it’s blessedly short, shorter than Christie’s usual length of around 300. If it was any longer it might be unreadable. The characters are stick-figures, the plot makes no sense (really, none, if you think about it, which I don’t advise) and the action-thriller elements howlingly bad. Christie was a great storyteller – read something like Appointment with Death if you want proof of that – but Robert Ludlum she weren’t.

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A mere thought: Mary Poppins theories

Cracked recently shared a theory about Disney’s 1964 classic, Mary Poppins: http://www.cracked.com/article_21552_5-famous-movies-with-political-agendas-you-didnt-notice_p2.html

That theory, which you need to read before understanding the rest of this post, stretches things a bit. Mary Poppins takes a lighthearted and whimsical approach to a lot of serious issues, like greed (“Fidelity Fiduciary Bank”), poverty (“Feed the Birds”), and class inequalities (“Chim Chim Cher-ee”).

One could spin an equally convincing theory that the film is about the working-class learning their place; after all, doesn’t chimney-sweep Bert feel “lucky as lucky can be” to be covered in soot and at the service of his social betters, and isn’t a nanny’s whole purpose, as expressed by the children in “The Perfect Nanny”, to please the offspring of the rich, regardless of her own qualities?

The final scene, where Poppins humbly submits to being forgotten, could also be interpreted in such a fashion, just as convincingly as any feminist interpretation. Regarding Mrs. Banks, I don’t think Disney’s guilty of disapproving of feminism so much as just treating it humourously, as, again, it does with class issues. Mrs. Banks isn’t a stupid or nasty person in the slightest; she merely strikes an odd balance between Victorian wife and Edwardian progressive.

As for Mary Poppins being presented not as a working-class woman but a perfect caregiver, that, I think, has more to do with Disney’s greater emphasis on magic and fantasy. Poppins isn’t a real human being; she’s an angel come down from the clouds to bestow grace on a dysfunctional family.

I don’t think she’s even a representation of womanhood; she’s more a mythical creature in the Disney film. After all, the film isn’t really about her; it’s about Mr. Banks and his redemption. She’s just the channel through which that redemption comes.

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She also has a stare which can freeze a man’s sperm.

Poem (by me): The Vanished Scholar

dedicated to the heroes of Lovecraftian horror stories, and their writers

The bedding rots in a tidy stupor;
its tenant, a scholar, of no repute in
circles far and wide, vanished in the dark,
hid simply, like an elder’s carnal sin.

His room, a dirty house its mere keeper,
looks out upon an alley and its grime,
one window of those where poor scholars live.
The normal world without, and its walking slime.

What pain our scholar felt before he left!
The daily grind of humans and their talk…
So when a world beyond opened its door,
all he did was pack his books and walk.

Book review: A Christmas Beginning by Anne Perry

I sometimes think Agatha Christie ruined mystery fiction for me. She wasn’t a poetic writer, but her skill as a puzzle-maker is incomparable. Her plots are almost always unpredictable, and populated with simple, eccentric personalities who stay by your side every step of the way, yet still beat you to the answers.

The other “Queens of Crime”, who wrote in the genre’s early to mid 20th-century Golden Age – Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham – range between boring and unreadable for me. Sayers was a better prose stylist than Christie (or any of them) but I find her stories tedious and embarrassingly twee. (Lord Peter Wimsey, anyone?)

Marsh is also an okay stylist, but desperately dull. (I still recall The Nursing Home Murder as one of the flattest books I’ve read.) Allingham I haven’t read in a long enough time to pass judgement, though I don’t recall being gripped by her work. Christie, on the other hand, for all her snobbery and untextured prose, gripped.

This brings us to Anne Perry, an English author of historical mysteries. Her novella A Christmas Beginning, part of her Christmas series, paints beautiful pictures of rural Victorian Wales, and rich personalities responding to an oppressive social structure. In literary terms, she’s a better writer than Christie.

Yet the mystery she builds isn’t anywhere near as ingenious as those in Dame Agatha. Perhaps ingenuity isn’t the point, though. I once saw an interview with Perry where she mentioned choosing detective fiction because it gave her a formula with which to arrange her characters and themes.

Other modern crime writers, like Val McDermid, have said similarly. The genre gives you a detective, suspects and a corpse. In other words, a main character, supporting cast and motivation for them all to be around each other. The question, therefore, is whether Perry uses this formula as a springboard to something great.

In my opinion, she does. A Christmas Beginning is a great book, pitched somewhere between Georgette Heyer and Thomas Hardy. On the Welsh island Beaumaris, Inspector Runcorn, a Londoner, is holidaying. He unexpectedly meets Melisande, a widow who, despite her brother John Barclay’s disapproval, once helped him solve a murder.

Any hopes for a pleasant reunion, however, are dashed when Runcorn stumbles across the local vicar’s sister, fatally stabbed in the graveyard. She was, apparently, a spirited and independant woman, whose refusal to settle down into an arranged marriage strained the community’s patience.

The book’s tone is melancholic, though populated by warm and loving, or just likeable, characters. The only thoroughly detestable one is John Barclay, a cruel, self-involved snob whose surface courtesies mask deep contempt for those around him. He was, it seems, competing with a local aristocrat for the late woman’s hand.

Perry’s exploration of social issues is deep and serious. In the vicar’s sister she paints a portrait of a woman oppressed by an archaic social code which demands obedience from her, at the expense of her autonomy and happiness. She is, essentially, a prisoner, having been deprived of the chance to learn a trade and thus dependant on men.

Despite this, she was defiantly individualist until the end. Her sorrows are reflected in Melisande and other women Runcorn meets in the course of his investigation. Perry is a brilliant painter of history; Beaumaris comes alive with windswept hills, quiet churchyards and rich Victorian personalities.

The mystery proceeds at an orderly pace, and given its realist ambitions doesn’t end in one of those shattering Christie denouements. Dark revelations, however, do emerge and are surprising. Perry doesn’t shy away from subjects which writers living in the Victorian era could only have hinted at.

So, while she may not be Agatha Christie, she is Anne Perry, which is more than enough for this reader, who likes being led into the past. For a fireside read with strong characters, evocation of place, dark secrets and a happy ending, A Christmas Beginning is highly recommended.

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Film review: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

Call me crazy, but I like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Its heroes are morons, and it’s wildly different in tone to its stark, scary predecessor, yet it’s colourful and darkly humourous enough to be worth watching. Don’t misunderstand me; it’s really not comparable with Tobe Hooper’s original, which had a tight narrative structure and subtlety.

On the surface, Chainsaw 2 seems to make all the classic horror sequel mistakes. It’s absurdly gory where the first was implicit, and silly where it was scary. What seperates it from films like Halloween II, however, is its deliberate gaudiness and black comedy. If nothing else, you have to praise Hooper for not relying on a formula.

Caroline Williams plays a late-night DJ whose call-in show is reached by a couple of idiots on the highway. As they annoy her another car drives up alongside and a masked figure wields a chainsaw at them… Having recorded the encounter, Williams offers it to Dennis Hopper, a sheriff and uncle of the brother and sister attacked by the killers in the first film.

What follows is a long and gleefully outlandish sequence at Williams’ radio station, to where Leatherface and his brother “Chop Top”, a Vietnam vet with an exposed metal plate in his head, trace her. (Leatherface, you’ll recall, is the masked and mentally disabled figure who does much of the family’s killing.)

In a scene which feminists could write essays about, Leatherface traces a static chainsaw along Williams’ sweat-drenched thighs. The phallic symbolism is appalling and, to me, darkly funny. After that, the third act is various fight, gore and comedy scenes in the killers’ lair. Gone is their farmhouse; in its place is a booby-trapped cave strung with fairy lights, below a fairground.

This change in setting exemplifies the film’s tonal shift. If Hooper’s original was a rough and ready masterpiece of shattering suspense, this is a gaudy carnival attraction, a haunted house with screaming plastic skeletons. In one especially disgusting yet amusing scene Williams dances with Leatherface while wearing her boyfriend’s… well, you’ll see. (Don’t worry, it’s not phallic.)

Her acting’s routine, given her routine role. Hopper does what Hopper does: growl, sneer and gesticulate like a madman. The family’s good, though their roles aren’t scary anymore; they’re played for (dark) laughs. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 isn’t a great film by any standard; it won’t stand out in history; but against all odds I enjoyed its anarchic humour and gleeful grotesquerie.

P.S: The film’s poster, pictured below, is a parody of John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club’s poster.

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Book review: Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

I admire Flannery O’Connor because she’s one of only a few writers who use violence in a totally selfless, morally necessary way. Where a nihilist or a satirist might grandstand, the horror in O’Connor’s work is a needed illustration of Christian humanist principles, like love, faith and empathy.

Even the savage murder of a young girl, from a short story I shan’t name, reveals no cruelty or nihilism in the author, but is a means of bringing us to revelation: evil is real, and it destroys the soul. (Whether you think the soul is immortal or not.)

Oddly enough, most of her stories, including those where everyone dies (someone often dies in an O’Connor story), are uplifting and hopeful. They all take place in a universe which recognises good and evil and treats them as objective truths, the road to good being much longer than the path to evil.

Wise Blood, one of two novels she wrote, could be easily dismissed as a painful and bleak book, but for those willing to read it with eyes wide open, it’s about the force of good trying to envelop the lonely and misguided. Or, as O’Connor would have put it, “the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it”.

That unwilling character is Hazel Motes, an ex-soldier returned from World War II, his home town abandoned. The grandson of a travelling preacher, his years away have rendered him a bitter atheist, and he shacks up with a prostitute in a new city, determined to blaspheme. Once an almost pedantically pious man, he’s now a committed heretic.

Motes is a cold and joyless soul. Despite his antireligious beliefs, he chooses a suit and hat which make him look like a preacher. He’s even mistaken for one by a taxi driver, infuriating this new heathen. Furious at his once beloved faith, he becomes a preacher for his own church, a Church Without Christ, proudly proclaiming, sometimes on street corners like a sandwich-board prophet, that Jesus was a liar.

His bleak mission leads him to Asa and Sabbath, a couple of Christian pamphleteers, Asa a hardened conman and Sabbath his unloved teenage daughter. Though their motives are secretly selfish and just as heretical as Motes’, he confuses them for genuine Christians and harrasses them.

Another bone of contention in his life is Enoch Emery, a lonely eighteen-year old zookeeper. Like Motes, he’s driven by blasphemy, though in an innocent and unknowing way.

Ignorant of doctrine and spiritual teachings, Emery believes he has “wise blood,” which pushes him towards revelation without intellectual guidance. His “blood” leads him to a mummified dwarf in a museum on the zoo’s grounds, and tells him that this ancient corpse is the “new jesus.”

O’Connor doesn’t capitalise “Jesus” when describing Emery’s dwarf, perhaps because this saviour isn’t real, and thus doesn’t deserve to share the prophet’s name. What Emery becomes is the true revelation: that his “wise blood” has led him to a false idol. His idolatory, far from fulfilling his spiritual needs, has brought him only madness and loneliness.

Wise Blood‘s second half is its most disturbing, because Motes’ and Emery’s respective obsessions finally consume them. Motes descends further than Emery, and turns into a gross, twisted monster. His pursuit of blasphemy and a godless universe brings him torture. He turns into a martyr almost against his will, which reminds me of a line from one of O’Connor’s short stories: “She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.”

Wise Blood is beautiful and thought-provoking. Like the scriptures that inspired it, the novel requires close attention. O’Connor’s prose is elegantly crafted, and she never stoops to the level of mean-spiritedness even in her darkest scenes, which provoke empathy, not hopelessness, as a lazy reading of this complex book might.

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Book review: The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor

Another old Amazon review of mine, of a book by possibly my favourite author.

This is one of my favourite novels, up there with Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, another Catholic masterpiece about love, evil, destiny and redemption. The Violent Bear It Away is about the battle for a child’s soul. The child is Francis Tarwater, a fourteen-year old boy raised by his great uncle Mason, who kidnapped him from his uncle so he could raise him as a Christian prophet.

Francis’ uncle is Rayber, a schoolteacher and staunch atheist. When Mason dies Francis burns down their house, neglects to give him the Christian burial he demanded, and arrives at Rayber’s door. And so the battle begins, as Rayber fights to “save” Francis from religion and remould him in his own image.

This novel’s title is taken from Matthew 11:12: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” The characters here certainly suffer violence, and whether they’ll bear the kingdom of heaven away, at least in their own lives, provides this story’s suspense.

Rayber has a retarded son, ironically named Bishop, whom Mason tried to baptise when he was born. He failed, and since passed the duty on to Francis, who struggles against Mason’s programming.

Though Mason is unstable, controlling and a bit stupid, there’s no doubt that O’Connor prefers his way of life to Rayber’s. Rayber is uptight and repressed. To him everything is or should be a matter of logic. He can’t allow himself to truly love Bishop because that love would be mysterious, based on a connection between parent and child which transcends logic.

Bishop is a retard, and so can’t be trained to share his father’s coldly logical view of life. Why should Rayber love him? In a way he views Francis as another shot at parenthood. But Francis, bitter about both Mason’s raising and Rayber’s perceived abandonment of him, reacts to his uncle with disdain.

What eventually happens to Bishop (and later Francis) is shocking and upsetting. The path to Francis’ destiny is paved with horror and death. One could question how the ending works on a literal level, considering what Francis has done. Would people be willing to hear this boy’s message, given what’s on his conscience?

But the literal level isn’t really the point. Like all of O’Connor’s stories this is a morality play, where action and symbolism are tied together. Her works were based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, so you could argue that they’re almost fables.

Even if, like me, you’re not religious, this book is worth reading. It’s a beautifully crafted evocation of religious and philosophical themes. I was reminded of Cormac McCarthy in later scenes where Francis wanders harsh country roads. There’s also a hypnotic passage in which a small girl leads a sermon.

The first chapter of this novel was originally published as a short story, “You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead”. That chapter’s ending echoes the novel’s, with Francis moving toward something.

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