Sunday, 17 April 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Christie versus Fleming


LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES

 

The Case of the City Clerk by Agatha Christie

short story from the collection  Parker Pyne Investigates


published 1934


 
[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]
Parker Pyne 2The 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:


Parker Pyne


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.






























20 comments:

  1. Moira, I think Christie was fond of spy fiction. There are shades and even outright elements of espionage in some of her books. Of course, I have not read all of her novels but that's the impression I get.

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    1. I think you're right - she was good at several genres, and I think would have made a success in any of them.

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  2. Blimey amundo! Very odd - and I should re-read the Pyne stories actually - thanks Moira!

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    1. I do know they are not everyone's cup of tea, but I re-read them regularly.

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  3. Oh, this is a good one, Moira, and I'm really glad that you mentioned it. I like Parker Pyne, and I sometimes think these stories don't get enough 'press.' Christie certainly made use of the mystique and atmosphere of the train, didn't she?

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    1. Yes she did, and in several of her other books too. I think she loved travel and could see the romance and glamour they might seem to offer.

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  4. I love the Parker Pym stories. Some of them were made into tv shows on the Agatha Christie Mystery Theatre (I think that's the name).

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    1. Oh yes, you are right, I tracked down a DVD a few years ago in order to watch them, rare treats indeed.

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  5. Christie had some interesting train rides - being stung by hornets and bed bugs, subsisting on plum jam in Russia, having "certain suggestions" made. Or was that on a boat?

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    1. She was a realistic but game traveller I think, loved her adventures.

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  6. I like them, too, Moira. They are funny and somehow rather touching with some penetrating shafts of insight into human nature. And I like the way things don't always turned as PP planned.

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    1. Yes - and whenever I read them I wish she'd written more of them.

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    2. Christie's non-detective stuff is fascinating. She was always fond of dipping her pen in satire and parody. I read an introduction to THE SEVEN DIALS MYSTERY by Val McDermid, and she makes the point that some people mock Christie's thrillers without realising that they are making fun of her thriller writing contemporaries, and of course in PARTNERS IN CRIME she is involved in sending up her Detection Club confreres.

      The Parker Pyne stories are fascinating in the way that they use the form of the detective tale in order to do something else. The protagonists are real people who are being taken for a ride by a master plotter, nominally Pyne but really Christie. It's like the average reader being literally caught up in fiction. Another case of Christie being all meta-textual.

      Of course, Christie did actually have a character called James Bond. He was the somewhat hapless hero of a story called the Rajah's Emerald from 1934, although it's sort of a shame that he wasn't the hero of this story!

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    3. Yes indeed - and when people try to guess her politics from her stories I feel the same: she was moving chessmen for entertainment purposes. She obviously did have very strong views about all kinds of things, and tells us about them in her autobiography, but you can't guess them (necessarily) from her books.
      I think she could have done a lot more with Parker Pyne, it's a brilliant and actually very unusual idea - I can't think of much to compare them with.
      And great catch on James Bond!

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  7. I know Christie loved her thrillers, Moira, and if I don't think most of them work nearly as well as her detective fiction, some of them are fun! And I am firmly on the side of Mr. Parker Pyne lovers! For some reason, those are the most comforting stories in the canon! I love Mr. PP's stable of actors playing out these fantasies to fix people's lives. Of course, they should all be arrested for the things they do, but for some reason, this fantasy of problem-solving (the earliest attempts at virtual reality?!?) are easier for me to swallow than all the grand conspiracies of So Many Steps to Death and They Came to Baghdad!

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    1. Yes I agree, and comforting is just the right word. I'm not a fan of the thrillers, but then one of my favourites of her books is Man in The Brown Suit - I don't know how you'd classify that one....

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  8. I like these stories too - they are satisfying. This one reminds me, and I'm not sure why (tone, perhaps?) of Ashenden, which I assume Christie would have read.

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    1. Oh good point, and I'm sure she read Maugham, she was so well-read. I have a jigsaw of a photograph of her bookshelves - next time I do it I will make a list of the writers there. I like Maugham a lot, and one time featured on the blog an Ashenden story where a lady tears up her underwear to staunch a wound.

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  9. I haven't been doing very well on my plans to read more short stories but the Parker Pyne stories are definitely ones I want to try.

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    1. Do try them - such easy reads and full of charm and warmth. I think you'll like them.

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