Dress Down Sunday: Agatha Christie Week


Agatha Christie was born on September 15th, 1890, so to celebrate her 125th anniversary there’ll be a week’s worth of blog entries on her books, her life, and a book that influenced her….

Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie

published 1935

Death in the Clouds 1
[Lord Horbury needs to talk to his wife, a former chorus girl]

He tapped at a door and waited for a minute. From inside the room a clear high voice cried out, “Come in!”

Lord Horbury went in.

It was a wide beautiful bedroom facing south. Cicely Horbury was in bed - a great carved-oak Elizabethan bed. Very lovely she looked, too, in her rose-chiffon draperies, with the curling gold of her hair. A breakfast tray with the remains of orange juice and coffee on it was on a table beside her. She was opening her letters. Her maid was moving about the room.
Any man might be excused if his breath came a little faster when confronted by so much loveliness, but the charming picture his wife presented affected Lord Horbury not at all.
There had been a time, three years ago, when the breathtaking loveliness of his Cicely had set the young man's senses reeling. He had been madly, wildly, passionately in love. All that was over. He had been mad. He was now sane.

[After talking to his wife, Lord Horbury goes for a walk]

Cramming an old fishing hat on his head, he left the house accompanied by his dog… He was walking along a narrow lane… when he met Venetia Kerr on her bay mare.

Venetia looked her best upon a horse. Lord Horbury looked up at her with admiration, fondness and a queer sense of homecoming.
Death in the Clouds 2

observations: The blurb on my paperback copy starts like this:
Murder over the Channel: As the luxury air-liner Prometheus sped towards Croydon, Hercule Poirot, with his usual eye for detail, studied his fellow passengers.
Such a good old-fashioned book in so many ways.

The details of air travel are intriguing – no smoking, and no free snacks. And I was interested that some of the passengers were grouped round tables facing each other, like a modern British train – you never see that on planes these days (not in the class I travel in anyway) and my memories of this book had everyone in the classic, usual lines, all facing the same way, which does make a difference to opportunities for murder.

But I don’t think the details of the crime are the main point here - this is one of those books where the picture of life is more interesting. The man in the periwinkle-blue jumper, the horrible French-style hair salon, the detective story writer doing his thing, the wicked French blackmailer and moneylender, the use of ‘flapjack’ for a compact. Jane Grey, who works in the salon, is the chief female character: going on a smart holiday she tarts herself up:
Clothes presented small difficulty. Jane, like most London girls employed in smart places, could produce a miraculous effect of fashion for a ridiculously small outlay. Nails, make-up and hair were beyond reproach.
I was reminded of Death in the Clouds by my good friend Margot Kinberg, proprietor of the excellent Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog. I recently wrote about a book where a certain Englishman is shocked by a woman wearing a flowing dress:
not tweeds and brogues as his wife would wear – he is missing his sensible wife Molly, who has a good seat on a horse and looks nice in a suede jacket.
Margot – sharp-eyed and with an excellent memory – said that this reminded her of Lord Horbury in this book, who has the opposite problem (married to the flibbertigibbert, yearning for the horsewoman). Spot on Margot…

Earlier on, when the two different women attend the inquest, they are described like this in the newspapers, hilariously making the same point:
Lady Horbury wore one of the new collegian hats and fox furs. 
Venetia Kerr… wore a well-cut coat and skirt with one of the new stocks.
- a stock in this case being a kind of neck-scarf, that you would properly wear while hunting. I tried to find out if collegian hats are a real thing, and could find no reference to them as a women’s fashion (perhaps a reader can help me). There is a man’s top hat with that name, but frankly you’d be hard put to explain the difference between a collegian and any other top hat (it’s bottom left):

Death in the Clouds 3

The top picture is an actress called Arlene Dahl; the woman on horseback is from the Helen Richey collection.


  1. Thank you, Moira, for the kind mention and the link. I'm so glad you featured this book in this brilliant discussion. As you say, Christie does such a fine job here of portraying life and lifestyles. I like the way she pokes fun at the upper classes here and there, although she doesn't come right out and do so. It's quite subtle and clever. And there's poor Poirot with his airsickness. A very human touch I always thought. Every time I re-read that one, I think about today's air travel. And groan...

    1. Yes - she could never have guessed how different air travel would be by now. Back then presumably most of her readers would never have been on a plane. And yes, one of the things I most like about Christie is her clever and subtle use of clothes, and I am grateful to you for pointing out this example...

  2. I used to love Arlene Dahl (later on she was the Victorian lady making tea at the bottom of a volcano in "Journey to the Centre of the Earth"). I remember rather enjoying this book, while knowing that Carr would have made rather more of the murder plot.

    1. You're not the only person to have picked up on Dahl, Sergio, I must investigate her further. This isn't my favourite Christie by any means, but I do still enjoy it. Excelletn point that it would have suited Carr...

  3. Great idea, Moira, to spend the whole week on AC. Venetia makes me think of Camilla Parker-Bowles.

    1. Oh good call Chrissie - Venetia is tougher than you're expecting, not a prissy goody goody at all. She calls her rival 'a bloody little tart' and makes it clear she would have sex outside marriage - surprising for the time, and as you say, all a bit Camilla....

  4. Christie......? Agatha....? A whole week....? Buzzin' can't wait....

  5. I have been looking forward to this book, mainly for the flying aspect. And it is much closer in my reading than Taken at the Flood (I am reading backwards you can see).

    I was surprised that was Arlene Dahl. I remember her most from Three Little Words, with Red Skelton and Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen. A lovely film.

    1. The flying details very historical-seeming! Three Little Words came up when I was looking her up - I have seen it long ago but don't remember: blogfriend Lucy recommended one called Woman's World.

  6. Moira, I haven't read a Christie for some years now though I'd embarked on a plan to read her mysteries in order of publication. I haven't come to this title yet. I have found subtle variations in her writing style, as evident from the passage you quoted above. Good luck with the week-long tribute to the Dame.

    1. Thanks Prashant! You will come to this one relatively soon, as it is so early...

  7. I've always found the passage where they're talking about what everyone had with them for hand luggage so interesting. I'd never heard of a compact being called a flapjack before- in American English it's a type of pancake, so I was left with a confused impression of a woman with butter and syrup all over her bag!

    1. Yes, flapjack threw me the first time I came across it in this context - in the UK it is a chewy oaty cake!


Post a Comment