The Mirror Crack’d by Agatha Christie

The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side by Agatha Christie

A bold, clever murder spirals into desperate measures. 

A clever Agatha Christie that’s lamentably too short, The Mirror Crack’d is almost like two stories. One is the classic mystery and the other is a dissertation of sorts on growing old, especially after WWII.

Set closer to the 1950s, Miss Marple is far less mobile and relies on the help of the annoyingly kind Mrs. Knight. Mary St. Mead is modernising, but not always for the better, as the townhouse style development shows. Like the last Poirot case, Miss Marple is definitely struggling with the physical indignities of growing old while her mind is still razor sharp.

The mystery itself is extremely clever, a classic Christie, where golden age Hollywood meets 1950s England. An innocent woman is poisoned by mistake when a beautiful, tragic actress was the intended victim. Who tried to kill Marina – her apparently devoted husband? The cool young secretary almost certainly in love with the husband? Or one of a slew of jilted lovers, ex-husbands or cast-off children?

This wasn’t my favourite book by Christie. My main complaint is how short it is – we don’t get as much chance to really dig into motives and personalities. The stakes could’ve been raised and the characters better explored with more length.

But there’s always the brilliant puzzle, so painfully obvious in retrospect, to buoy an otherwise decent read.

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Look to the Lady by Margery Allingham

A classic British mystery blending danger, suspense and eerieness. 

After Traitor’s Purse, this is my favourite Campion mystery. It combines just the right amount of mystery, danger and comraderie with a spookiness that remains with you even after the puzzles are solved.

The story opens with a constable handed a shilling to a poverty-stricken young man. Visible means of support was required to avoid arrest, and the constable has known the young man in his better days.

Val is homeless after being estranged from his father – it is just one of Campion’s jobs to return the young man to the ancestral home. More importantly, he must protect the Gyrth Chalice that has been in Val’s family for centuries.

Campion doesn’t share many details, even with his beloved servant and former burglar Lugg. If you’ve not read a Campion mystery, it is the chemistry between these two that makes the series so delightful. Campion’s amiable, vacuous personality conceals a brilliant mind. He’s inclined to make light of danger and act foolish, so the trucculent motherliness of Lugg provides a beautiful counterweight.

But this mystery is a doozy and puts both of them in extreme peril. The evil people seeking the chalice could be any number of vague people. What do the priceless chalice, the death of Val’s foolish aunt, a secret society and a living nightmare have in common?

These are the trials that Campion and Lugg must face, along with Val, his lovely sister Penny and a host of other well-rounded characters. In their quest to save the chalice, they must face the stuff of nightmares in a spooky old wood and survive multiple scores of violence.

This book more so than even Christie or Marsh mysteries thrusts you deep into the English countryside. Somehow it takes you deep into a tiny village in the post-war 1920s while simultaneously layering in the spell of a much older England.

Like our Sam Gamgee said that Lothlorien was like being inside an elven song, so is Look to the Lady like being transported into something quintessentially English.

The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway

A sordid story that goes from blissful newlyweds to insane nightmare. 

It is difficult to describe this intense 1920s book – it isn’t a thriller, nor a classic. It is more of a very tiny soap opera. What starts as a golden, idyllic honeymoon of love making and eating turns into a dysfunctional menage a trois.

This is a posthumous book published after Mr. Hemingway’s death. As such it has been cut down from 125,000+ words to a mere 70,000 by an editor removing an “unneeded sub-plot”. One wonders if he did the book a favour or not.

It starts with Girl and Boy, blissfully immersed in their extended honeymoon and seemingly unaware of real life. Eventually you learn Catherine is a rich woman supporting her new husband David, a writer.

Catherine starts out by telling David of her insatiable appetite and how she is a destroyer. She’s going to destroy him, she says, but he just takes it in stride as your typical feminine exaggeration. He even says she’s too sleepy to be dangerous. Too bad she’s serious.

One reviewer says this is “Catherine’s quest to gain control in her life by becoming a man.” She gets a boy’s haircut and forces him to role play as a girl. The story goes on to involve another girl whom Catherine draws into their unfortunate marriage, before running into a bland, unsatisfying ending.

Some people have said this is about a woman who is powerful and nonconformist, struggling to express herself in a male dominated 1920s. Or about Catherine’s need to fill a void in herself and how David is a passive accessory to her mental instability.

It might have these brilliant layers but as a story it just feels unfinished, somehow managing to be uncomfortably racy while also uninteresting.

Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Naive young Archer Newland falls for a disgraced countess, the cousin of his fiancée.

This 1920’s novel starts with the innocent Archer Newland happily involved in his theories of marriage. He’s a well connected and well-to-do bachelor at the prime of his life in a New York that loves white men. Archer has everything.

The opera where Archer announces his engagement to the beautiful young May should have been his triumph. But although he’s only aware of a disquieting feeling, it foreshadows his misery.

Archer is exquisitely aware of all social customs and becomes the family’s advisor for helping the Countess, Ellen Olenska. Poor Ellen is a bit of a fallen woman – raised by eccentric parents who allow her to wear black at her coming out and to marry a foreign count.

After her escape from this abusive relationship, she returns to America as something damaged yet grown larger because of it. She is an enigmatic and seductive creature who no longer fits into the acceptable box for a woman. Equally pitied and blamed for her downfall, she ends up unwittingly destroying Archer’s happy ignorance.

Archer is obviously intelligent and cultured, but he holds society’s rules as a sort of happy religion. Without even trying, Ellen reveals every foible and hypocrisy. The things he held so dear he is forced to see clearly. He grows beyond their confines and falls in love with Ellen. She’s something passionate and genuine in a world of artifice.

But then there’s her cousin May, the young girl he is engaged to. He has always pictured May as a blank canvas he intended to paint. The irony is that May’s sweet nature may be indifferent to his attempts to form her.

Watching Archer struggle is like trying to remove superglue from your fingers. It is ultimately futile – you might get one finger free but then you’ll get it stuck to something else. I get the feeling that Edith Wharton was enjoying Archer’s innocence even as she used it to torture him.

The ending could be argued to be Archer’s peace with the world, his acceptance and maturity. Or is it merely showing us that Archer has been and always will be a coward?

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

A gorgeously written tale of loss, corruption and mercy in the English countryside.

This is a beautifully written book that manages to show so many distinct and complementary levels, like an English trifle. I immediately fell in love with the narrator and his summer-drenched memories. Charles Ryder is visiting Brideshead again — now as a commander in the second world war — and recollecting his intense association with the Flyte family who lived there.

A promising artist, Charles begins as an uncorrupted youth who might have followed dull but cheerful Wilkins’ into a reputable profession. Instead he is befriended by the wealthy teddy bear carrying Sebastian Flyte and his entire life is swept up into a sort of narrator for the Flyte family’s drama.

The main theme is the destructive relationship between Charles, Sebastian and Julia. The beauty of the book is in the vagueness. Charles obviously loves Sebastian, but is it more than as a friend? When he later loves Julia, is it only as a socially acceptable proxy who resembles Sebastian?

But so many other things come to light – the troubled relationship with family, the effect of wealth without responsibility, the role of religion, the impact of adoration – the list goes on and on. There are endless questions in this book, endless ways to interpret and explore the impact of even minor characters like the little sister Cordelia.

My sympathy was with Charles at first, but he willfully ignores both logic and his own conscience. I felt that he ought to have known better, although we could argue his basically absentee father and dead mother do not adequately prepare him for standing up to the Flytes.

The charming Sebastian is the true tragedy and somehow more of a symbol than a real person. We are always forced to guess at his feelings and motives. He has so much potential, all wasted (or is it?) He uses alcohol and travel as a means of escaping himself. He is tortured by his love of being a young, self-indulgent and charming upper class heir against an enormous Roman Catholic pressure to be a saint and possibly a guilt of not having earned any of it himself.

While no one has a happy ending, perhaps each of the characters ends up in the place their actions have been leading them?

Mr. Bazalgette’s Agent by Leonard Merrick

L_ISBN_9780712357029A sparkling tale of the first lady detective in England, brought back to print by the British Library.

This amusing story was first published in 1888. Ms. Miriam Lea is an engaging and delightful narrator. She is surprisingly sassy given that she is a woman in the late 1800s. Despite being down on her luck, she manages to secure a position as a detective for an agency.

She is soon travelling through the continent and headed to the diamond mines of South Africa to pursue an embezzler. There are many twists and turns in the case but I found myself both amused and a little disappointed by the ending. I suppose it was 1888 after all.

The book is written in diary form, which I usually detest but in this case it worked out quite well and made for a very fast read.

Strangely, Leonard Merrick never wrote another detective novel and went on to buy and destroy all the copies he could find. “It’s a terrible book. It’s the worst thing I ever wrote. I bought them all up and destroyed them. You can’t find any.”

Thankfully he didn’t get quite all of them.