LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
The Case of the City Clerk by Agatha Christieshort story from the collection Parker Pyne Investigates
[Mr Roberts is on the night train from Geneva to Paris, and is trying to help a young woman in trouble: he comes to her compartment]
The door was pulled open, he was seized by the arm, pulled through into the farther compartment, and the girl closed and bolted the door behind him.
Roberts caught his breath. Never had he imagined anything so lovely. She was wearing a long foamy garment of cream chiffon and lace. She leaned against the door into the corridor, panting. Roberts had often read of beautiful hunted creatures at bay. Now, for the first time, he saw one - a thrilling sight.
"Thank God!" murmured the girl.
She was quite young, Roberts noted, and her loveliness was such that she seemed to him like a being from another world. Here was romance at last - and he was in it!
She spoke in a low, hurried voice. Her English was good but the inflection was wholly foreign. "I am so glad you have come," she said. "I have been horribly frightened. Vassilievitch is on the train. You understand what that means?"
Roberts did not understand in the least what it meant, but he nodded.
"I thought I had given them the slip. I might have known better. What are we to do? Vassilievitch is in the next carriage to me. Whatever happens, he must not get the jewels. Even if he murders me, he must not get the jewels."
"He's not going to murder you and he's not going to get the jewels," said Roberts with determination.
"Then what am I to do with them?"
Roberts looked past her at the door. "The door's bolted," he said.
The girl laughed. "What are locked doors to Vassilievitch?"
Roberts felt more and more as though he were in the middle of one of his favourite novels. "There's only one thing to be done. Give them to me."
She looked at him doubtfully. "They are worth a quarter of a million."
Roberts flushed. "You can trust me."
The girl hesitated a moment longer, then: "Yes, I will trust you," she said. She made a swift movement. The next minute she was holding out to him a rolled-up pair of stockings - stockings of cobweb silk. "Take them, my friend," she said to the astonished Roberts.
He took them and at once he understood. Instead of being light as air, the stockings were unexpectedly heavy.
commentary: If this extended excerpt sounds ridiculously over the top and unreal – well, it’s meant to be.
If it hadn’t been published so early, you would think Christie was satirizing Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love – as we saw last week, that was full of mysterious foreigners, and encounters on the train, and under-dressed women. It’s interesting that Christie is poking fun at the clichés, but the clichés were still going strong in the Bond books 20 years later.
Parker Pyne is very different from Christie’s other series characters – he is an ‘expert on happiness’ who advertises in the paper:
And then he solves people’s problems. The stories are mostly rather light-hearted – some don’t even have a crime connection. Mr Parker Pyne also goes on holiday to exotic locations, and comes across all kinds of people he can help.
I find the stories tremendously attractive and satisfying – I know some Christie fans dislike them intensely. Personal taste.
This one features a middle-aged man, very sedate and usually happy with his quiet life, who is looking for one burst of danger and excitement before settling down into old age. The way Parker Pyne helps him (and helps the British Government at the same time) is neat and clever and highly enjoyable. By the end of the story – and this is not a spoiler – Mr Roberts can pick up his favourite exotic thrillers and tell himself that he knows whereof he reads:
He opened his book again and read happily. No longer was there a wistful expression on his face. He too, was of that glorious company to whom Things Happened.
Who knew that you went to Christie rather than Fleming for realism and satire?
I have done a couple of entries on other PP stories – The House of Shiraz, one of my all-time favourite bits of Christie, and The Case of the Rich Woman.
The picture is from the wonderful Kristine’s photostream.