Christie, Agatha. Parker Pyne Investigates: A Parker Pyne Collection. [Putnams 1934] New York: Harper Collins-William Morrow, 2012.
The Detection Club. Six Against the Yard. [Selwyn & Blount 1936]. London: Harper-Collins, 2013.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed but Agatha Christie books seem to be more numerous on bookstore shelves than they were a couple of years or so ago. In common with Shakespeare and the Bible, Christie is never completely out of print, but some of her books are harder to find than others. This appears to be even more true of the various collections of her short stories. However, not long ago, I came upon Parker Pyne Investigates and although I already had a couple of the stories in this collection in The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories that I reviewed in January, I decided to buy the book together with another republished work Six Against the Yard by the Detection Club of which Christie was a member. My reasons were twofold: nostalgia and practicality. I’m rather fond of old-style English detective fiction, and short stories are so useful to read on the bus.
When I read these stories dating from the thirties, I continue to be struck by how they differ from contemporary crime fiction with its focus on forensic evidence and on accurate procedural detail. Such concerns don’t seem to be of interest to writers such as Christie and her companions in the Detection Club. As the full title of Six Against the Yard suggests, Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkley, Freeman Wills Crofts, Father Ronald Knox, Dorothy L. Sayers, Russell Thorndike commit the Crime of Murder . . . Ex-Superintendent Cornish, C.I.D is called upon to solve [their crimes]. And it is interesting to see how Cornish very often points out that while the murders may well each appear to be “a perfect murder,” very often, the writers’ neglect of normal police procedure leads them to assume that things won’t be found out when, in fact, they probably will. In many ways, Cornish’s brief responses to the crimes are more interesting than the stories themselves in the way Cornish explains how a police investigator’s mind works and how investigation techniques lead to criminals ultimately betraying themselves.
Six Against The Yard also includes as “Afterword: The Arsenic Poison Mystery” a brief account of the to this day unsolved mystery of who murdered Edmund Creighton Duff, and Vera and Violet Sydney in Croydon in 1929. You may have seen the Julian Fellowes Investigates. A Most Mysterious Mystery: The Case of the Croydon Poisonings (2005) with Jean Marsh and Amanda Root. Agatha Christie wrote an article about the unsolved crimes for the New Chronicle and that, too, in included in Six Against the Yard.
At first, I tended to think that the fictional crimes created by the six members of the detection club were insoluble. However, Superintendent Cornish’s evaluations rather tempered my response. I think I was most amused by his assessment of Dorothy L. Sayer’s attempt at the “perfect murder,” for he says that no-one “could prove, indeed, that murder had been committed” (234). Oh dear. The other aspect of the collection that I liked was the opportunity to read Freeman Wills Crofts and Russell Thorndike, writers that one reads about but doesn’t find on the shelves unless one’s local library retains its old volumes longer than normal. I notice that reprinting of the old mystery writers seems to go in cycles, and Margery Allingham books are reappearing in paper back. Perhaps we will see a return of Crofts, Thorndike, and Berkley, and even of Father Ronald Knox. Who knows? Perhaps someone will want to make Christie’s Parker Pyne as popular with television audiences as Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot already are.
I had not really read that many Parker Pyne stories until I read those in Parker Pyne Investigates. Parker Pyne isn’t a detective; rather, he’s a kind of very practical therapist, I suppose. He advertises in the Personal Column of the paper: “Are you happy? If not, consult Parker Pyne. 17 Richmond Street” (2). For the most part, his clients are satisfied with the service. Much of the pleasure in the stories comes from Christie’s use of dramatic irony. We see how Mr. Pyne arranges things for his clients. They never do. Of further interest, perhaps, is the fact that he has a secretary called Miss Lemon. Did she work for him or Hercule Poirot first? Also the novelist Ariadne Oliver a recurring figure in some of the Poirot cases appears in the Parker Pyne stories. I found myself wondering how well Mr. Pyne would adapt to today’s world of cell phones and the Internet. Would today’s interconnectedness help or hinder him in his endeavours? I enjoyed the stories, but perhaps because for the most part what “crimes” occur are social as opposed to actually criminal, one feels there is less at stake for Parker Pyne’s clients than for Poirot’s. Mr. Pyne certainly has something of Miss Marple’s insight into ordinary human beings and something himself of the zest we associate with Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, but, on the whole, I found the Parker Pyne stories less engaging than Christie’s better known works.
I included Bradley’s The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches in the discussion of Murder Most Antic because although it is a contemporary novel, its English country house and village setting and its time, the fifties, means it roots some of its appeal in our nostalgia for the earlier works. This is the latest in the Flavia de Luce series. It certainly answers some questions for us, but I found it less compelling in terms of mystery and less comic than the earlier books. It is a not unsatisfying book, however, and if you have been following Flavia’s exploits, you will want to read this to tie up all the loose ends. I don’t think I’ll be spoiling anything if I quote the last sentence of the book, which is worth remembering: “Never underestimate either an old woman—or old blood.” Perhaps, too, I should add—or an old book.