Monday, November 02, 2009

Notes! On Agatha Christie and Nero Wolfe!

Too much time spent watching baseball and attempting to learn to play "Linus and Lucy" on the piano without driving rocketlass totally insane leads to . . . a Notes column! Newspapers may die, but the Notes column is eternal!

1 Recently, an article by John Curran in the Guardian in honor of Agatha Christie's 120th birthday sent me to The ABC Murders (1935). Like the last time I read Christie (prompted by Pierre Bayard's gamesmanship), I was pleasantly surprised at her light touch, which didn't register during my long-ago middle-school Poirot binge. Sure, the characters rarely rise above type and the dialogue is wooden, but the sense of fun that pervades the novel--even as its ostensible focus is brutal murder--is infectious. It even extends--unexpectedly--to Christie poking a little fun at herself and her formula, in this conversation between Poirot and his trusty friend Hastings:
"If you could order a crime as one orders a dinner, what would you choose?"

I fell in with his humour.

"Let me see now. Let's review the menu. Robbert? Forgery? No, I think not. Rather too vegetarian. It must be murder--red-blooded murder--with trimmings, of course."

"Naturally. The hors d'oeuvres."

"Who shall the victim be--man or woman? Man, I think. Some bigwig. American millionaire. Prime Minister. Newspaper proprietor. Scene of the crime--well, what's wrong with the good old library? Nothing like it for atmosphere. As for the weapon--well, it might be a curiously twisted dagger--or some blunt instrument--a carved stone idol--"

Poirot sighed.

"Or, of course, I said, there's poison--but that's always so technical. Or a revolver shot echoing in the night. Then there must be a beautiful girl or two--"

"With auburn hair," murmured my friend.

"Your same old joke. One of the beautiful girls, of course, must be unjustly suspected--and there's some misunderstanding between her and the young man. And then, of course, there must be some other suspects--an older woman--dark, dangerous type--and some friend or rival of the dead man's--and a quiet secretary--dark horse--and a hearty man with a bluff manner--and a couple of discharged servants or gamekeepers or something--and a damn fool of a detective rather like Japp--and well--that's about all."

"That is your idea of the cream, eh?"

"I gather you don't agree."

Poirot looked at me sadly.

"You have made there a very pretty resume of nearly all the detective stories that have ever been written."

2 Christie also offers a quick little joke at the expense of Sherlock Holmes:
"The crime," said Poirot, "was committed by a man of medium height with red hair and a cast in the left eye. He limps slightly on the right foot and has a mole just below the shoulder-blade."

"Poirot?" I cried.

For a moment I was completely taken in. Then the twinkle in my friend's eye undeceived me.

"Poroit!" I said again, this time in reproach.

"Mon ami, what will you? You fix upon me a look of doglike devotion and demand of me a pronouncement a la Sherlock Holmes!"
The ABC Murders appeared in 1935, a mere five years after Conan Doyle's death, and only eight years after the publication of the last Sherlock Holmes story, which makes me wonder when the first parody of Holmes appeared. How quickly did wags begin to treat Holmes's infallible perceptiveness as an object of humor? Somehow I doubt Christie was the first--and if Google Books had more than a limited preview of The Alternative Sherlock Homes (2003), I might be able to say for sure. Looks like this may require a trip to the library . . .

3 Then there's this exchange, which smacks more of the relationship between Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin than what usually prevails between Poirot and Hastings:
"Is that a way to fold a coat? And regard what you have done to my pyjamas. If the hairwash breaks what will befall them?"

"Good heaveans, Poirot," I cried, "this is a matter of life and death. What does it matter what happens to our clothes?"

"You have no sense of proportion, Hastings. We cannot catch a train earlier than the time that it leaves, and to ruin one's clothes will not be the least helpful in preventing a murder."
Unlike Archie, however, Hastings simply cannot be counted on for a wry rejoinder. I could imagine a Hastings who is more of an English Archie--think Bertie Wooster with a sidearm--but I don't picture him lasting long with Poirot, who seems to need less a goad than a foil.

4 Speaking of Nero Wolfe, it was his fault that the premise of The ABC Murders, described by John Curran as "beautifully simple," didn't surprise me this time around. The murders mounted, and I began to think I could see the motive behind them . . . but it took me a while to remember that I'd come across the same diabolical plan recently in "The Slaughtered Santas," an episode of the early 1950s "The Adventures of Nero Wolfe" radio show. {Spoilers here, for those who want them.}

5 The Nero Wolfe radio show, sadly, isn't as good as fans of the novels would have a right to hope; it arrived too late in the radio era to get the quality of writing Rex Stouts novels deserve. Still, there's undeniable pleasure in hearing the glorious Sydney Greenstreet in the title role--imagine him delivering this line, from Too Many Cooks (1935):
I have only so long to live--so many books to read, so many ironies to contemplate, so many meals to eat.
A list that's sad, but true, and to which I'd have to add that one only gets so many World Series, so in an effort to postpone winter's chill at least one more night, it's time to watch some baseball.

No comments:

Post a Comment