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One of these stories is a gem...but which one?
on 2 October 2001
Agatha Christie, or a scheming publisher, has made it peculiarly difficult to provide an accurate rating for this collection of twelve short stories dominated by the themes of disguise, confusion of identity, the mingling of the genuine article and the fake. The ruse was to plant a single gem among an astonishing assortment of tales, the majority of which are nothing more than the litter of a versatile and prolific writer.
The opening story, "The Listerdale Mystery", is a pleasing little tale of an upper-class widow and her two children who have fallen on hard times. They find a benefactor in the unknown and unseen Lord Listerdale whose whereabouts and motives remain under wraps until the final page. Now, don't get too excited! For all Mrs Christie's heavy-handed hints about the peer having played an active part in some unspeakable tragedy, that he is somewhere in East Africa and may not return for many a year, Lord Listerdale is no 'drop-dead-gorgeous' aristocratic rake pursued by international paparazzi and MI5 alike. He is an altogether gentler, albeit somewhat mundane, member of the peerage, little more than a 'boy who loves to dress up'. There are endless games of dressing up in the stories that follow.
Variations on the theme of identity are an essential element in Agatha Christie's technique as a writer of classic detective fiction. However, the key difference between most of the stories in this collection and the 'Christie Classic' is that, owing to the weak interaction of theme and form, the narratives themselves have to be disguised. Most of these stories are peopled with unlikely characters from cheap romantic fiction, the sort of books that fascinate the protagonist of "The Manhood of Edward Robinson" who adores the fictitious Marchesa Bianco but is disconcerted to find himself embroiled with Lady Noreen Elliot and a missing diamond necklace. Stolen rubies and emeralds fail to dazzle even in the company of the Rajah of Maraputna, the daughter and younger son of the Marquess of Axminster, a gentleman who sports a 'moustache of the Hohenzollern persuasion', the fiancée of the deadly dull Duke of Edgehill-- and not one but two Balkan Grand Duchesses! The author has laboured to disguise a series of impoverished and predictable plots with the glamorous cloak of British, European, and Oriental aristocracy. The ploy does not succeed. Nevertheless, Mrs Christie has included three worthy examples of the short story form that make me feel slightly guilty about the single star I've awarded to the collection as a whole particularly when one of these tales is a genuine sparkler.
Murder is easy when it is disguised as a simple, albeit tragic mishap. In "Accident" the retired Inspector Evans recognises an individual he believes has killed with impunity at least twice. Despite the Inspector's experience of serial killers, his logical reasoning, and his coolheaded, careful dealings with the individual in question, he miscalculates. The Inspector's false reckoning leads the reader astray so that we too are stunned when in the final paragraph we discover who the murderer has determined to eliminate next. It was, of course, yet another 'dreadful accident'. 'It was not an accident', remarks Blanche Amery in "Swan Song", 'I am sure it was not an accident'. Puccini's 'Tosca' provides Agatha Christie with the backdrop to the poignant story of Madame Paula Nazorkoff: 'the greatest Tosca in the world'. The opera with its suffocating atmosphere of disguise and deception, of love deformed by jealousy, provides the means for Madame Paula to assume a role in order to resume her true identity, to use the murder of Scarpia to shift revenge tragedy from the stage into the drama of her own life. There are no accidents in this story but the author leaves us wondering whether the protagonist planned to have murder passed off as a tragic mistake. Or would Bianca Capelli's proud heart have repudiated further duplicity? Agatha Christie's use of the open-ended narrative in these two stories is perfected in "Philomel Cottage" which is the jewel of the collection.
The prospect of an accident plays on the mind of Alix Martin, newly married to the obsessively methodical Gerald. Agatha Christie's "Philomel Cottage" is a story in the Bluebeard tradition guaranteed to keep the reader's heart pounding from the moment Alix notices a series of inexplicable entries in her husband's pocket diary. The narrative is a hard-paced race to the finish, an ending at which the author leaves us undecided as to how she has refashioned the legend of Bluebeard. The reader is forbidden the relief of dead certainty. The most fabulous gems cannot always be picked out from an array of fakes or stones less perfectly cut but "Philomel Cottage" shines out from the rest of this collection as a narrative as heart stopping as any full-length 'Christie Classic' and if published as an independent novella would merit a five star rating. This selection of short stories is worth buying for "Philomel Cottage" alone. But as far as the book as a whole is concerned make your appointment with death elsewhere.