The Annoying Little Belgian

I have been a fan of Agatha Christie since grade school. I know this because I have a vivid memory of our 6th grade teacher – Sister Amica – walking around our classroom while we were having quiet reading time, glancing down at the book I was reading and gasping in horror. She proceeded to take the book from my hands and held it up for the entire class to see as an example of a highly inappropriate reading choice. Was I reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover? No. I was reading Death on the Nile, a fine Agatha Christie novel featuring our favorite Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.

The book came – as many of my books did back in those days – from the Columbus Public Library. On the bottom left-hand corner of the book there was a stamp indicating it was a Crime Club Book. That, my friends, was my grave sin. “Criiiiiiime Cluuuuuub,” she practically hissed. It was the gun that triggered her anger. Ha, get it? Triggered?

I was an 11 or 12 year old who respected my elders, did my homework, and obeyed instructions from my teachers. Yet, even at that age, I recall thinking, “Really? You’re troubled by an Agatha Christie mystery?” Good thing my parents taught me to think for myself.

Anyway, I love Agatha Christie mysteries to this day, and Hercule Poirot is my favorite detective. History tells us Agatha Christie grew tired of Poirot, referring to him as “that annoying little Belgian.” She called him a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, egocentric little creep.” That’s blunt. I, of course, disagree. But back to Poirot. His style is always the same. He does his due diligence with one trusty sidekick or another following behind him and doing his bidding. Using his “little grey cells,” he is able to solve the mystery. In the last chapter, he always gathers everyone into a room and proceeds to explain the who, how, and why. I don’t think I ever guessed a murderer in advance. What’s more, though I’ve read the books more times than I can count, I rarely remember the murderer. One of the few instances where getting old and forgetful comes in handy.

The exception to this phenomenon is Murder on the Orient Express. The reason I remember the murderer is because not only have I read the book a half dozen times, but there have been a total of four Murder on the Orient Express movies made, and I’ve seen all but the one that was made-for-network-television in 2001 and was panned. Well, true confession: There was a Japanese version made that I also missed. Seeing Hercule Poirot eat sushi is just wrong.

The most recent version is, of course, the one that is currently running in the movie theaters. Bec and I went to see it yesterday. She is as a big an Agatha Christie fan as I, except I don’t think she ever got busted in school for reading The Mysterious Affair at Styles. She probably covered the book up with brown paper. Anyway, I was very excited when I saw the preview for the movie because it is such a great mystery. However, I had two concerns about watching this movie. 1) Would it be as much fun when I knew the ending; and 2) How could anyone besides David Suchet play Poirot. As far as I’m concerned, he is the Poirot by which all Poirots are measured.

A couple of years ago, I took a class through the Academy of Lifelong Learning, a program offering educational opportunities for seniors. While others were taking Economics in the 21st Century, or Using Physics Principles in Everyday Life, I took a class on Hercule Poirot. Stop snickering. I loved it. It gave me the opportunity to talk to other Agatha Christie geeks about which actress was the best Miss Marple, or what was your favorite Christie murder location.

As part of the course, we watched two of the four movies. In 1974, the first Murder on the Orient Express movie came out, and it featured Albert Finney as the Belgian detective, with a slew of famous costars, including Ingrid Bergman. Then the Poirot series on PBS television  offered their version, and the angels sang. David Suchet as Poirot, well, it’s just right. Fewer famous costars, but DAVID SUCHET.

So how does the 2017 version compare? Favorably, I’m happy to say. Kenneth Branagh, an Irish actor and director, stars as Poirot, and does a great job. He doesn’t try to copy Suchet’s Poirot, and that’s a good thing. Even his famous Poirot mustaches are different. This one is so big it practically needs it’s own dressing room…..

The movie featured a bang-up cast, especially if you watch a lot of PBS movies and television shows. I found myself trying to figure out where I saw that actor or on which show that actress plays a police detective. And I will watch any movie in which Judi Dench has a role, though this one was small.

As for knowing the ending, surprisingly, that wasn’t a problem at all. I watched the movie a bit differently than someone who didn’t know the murderer’s identity, but it kind of made it fun.

By the way, as I was driving home, I learned from the radio that it was World Kindness Day. If I had known that, I would have bought Bec’s ticket. But Poirot was kind at the end of the movie, so there was that….

Friday Book Whimsy: Magpie Murders

Magpie Murders, by author Anthony Horowitz, is a refreshing break from many mystery novels with predictable plots and authors that try just a bit too hard to give the reader a surprise ending. Horowitz is the creator and writer of one of my favorite British television crime dramas Foyle’s War, so I was very excited to see what he had up his sleeve with the unusual format of this novel.

Magpie Murders actually gives the readers two separate mysteries to ponder – a mystery within a mystery, so to speak.

Editor Susan Ryeland is given a copy of the manuscript of author Alan Conway’s latest novel featuring his famed detective Atticus Pund. Pund is very much like Agatha Christie’s famed detective Hercule Poirot, spending his time solving mysteries in little English villages, providing his readers with hints and red herrings galore. Since Ryeland has been Conway’s editor from the get-go, she is used to his formula; however, the more she reads, the more she thinks Conway is giving the reader a mystery within a mystery.

She continues to read, but just as Pund is getting ready to gather the suspects together to identify the killer, the story stops. Whaaaaat? The last chapter is missing. Why did Alan Conway not finish the book, but turn it in to his editor anyway shortly before he commits suicide?

Despite being ordered by her boss to leave it well enough alone, Ryeland begins trying to figure out why Conway would end the story in this manner. As you follow along with Ryeland, can you figure out what’s going on?

What I liked best about this book is that in the first chapter, Ryeland sits down with a cup of tea and hours of time and begins to read the manuscript. And then the book is presented to the readers of Magpie Murders just as Ryeland is reading it. And the Pund novel is a fun romp, very reminiscent of Agatha Christie. Manor houses, murders, mysterious guests. If that had been the entire book, I would still be giving it a good review.

But it isn’t. Because suddenly, the book ends, and the second mystery begins. It was so much fun (if you can call murder and suicide fun).

This really is a must-read for lovers of good mysteries with challenging endings, and definitely a must-read for Agatha Christie fans. As for me, I’m on the lookout for other books by this author.

Here is a link to the book.

Choo Choo

The bottom line is that there is no easy, one step way to get to Montpelier, VT, the smallest state capital in these United States. Some variation of trains, planes, and automobiles is required. Over the years, we’ve tried several options. Once we flew into Boston, via Milwaukee, hopped on a three-hour bus ride that took us to Hanover, NH, where Heather picked us up and drove us the hour or so to her home. No bueno.

We once flew into Manchester, NH, via – of all places – Orlando, FL. That time we rented a car and drove an hour and a half or so to Montpelier. Yet another time we flew into Burlington, VT, where Heather and Lauren picked us up to take us home. That time was fun because we went to a busker festival and saw Bernie Sanders casually walking down the street with no one paying him a bit of attention.

So this time we did something a bit different. We flew to NYC via Chicago, and spent the night in the city that never sleeps. Our overnight allowed us the chance to rest a bit and dine at one of my favorite restaurants – Becco’s. The next morning we walked the block or so to Penn Station where we boarded the Amtrak Vermonter, a passenger train that originates in Washington, DC, and concludes in St. Albans,VT, just short of Canada, making about ten thousand stops along the way. One of the stops is Montpelier, where this was awaiting for us…..

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…and this……

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From the time we stepped on the train until we stepped off in the rain to the glad greetings of Heather, Joseph, and Micah, eight-and-a-half hours had passed. I will admit it. I had envisioned seeing Hercule Poirot at a white-cloth-covered table in the dining car, eating escargot and drinking champagne by candlelight and wearing black tie. What I saw instead was a microwave, plastic forks, and a crabby food server who took frequent cigarette breaks in what was optimistically called the Club Car. Hercule was no where to be seen.

Having said that, I found about seven hours of the trip to be quite pleasant. The train moved along at a perky pace, and the stops, while frequent, were short. I had thought I might sleep because I knew I wouldn’t feel compelled to stay awake to keep the vehicle safe in the way that I do when I fly. Instead, however, I found myself hypnotically enjoying the pretty scenery and the smooth movement of the train. I didn’t even open my book. I watched the countryside of New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont fly by.

I will, however, admit that by the last hour or so, I was ready to be done. It had started to rain, the train was going right through a wooded area, hereby preventing any sort of view beyond trees, trees, and more trees. I have nothing against trees; I just missed the expansive scenic views.

And I was hungry. I ate a soggy microwaved sandwich for lunch, but simply couldn’t do one for dinner. I texted our Montpelier folks and requested a pizza stop upon arrival. Having the McLain pizza-loving genes, they were more than happy to oblige. In fact, Joseph – a growing 7-year old – ate two big slices of pepperoni pizza despite having eaten a full dinner shortly before.

We have enjoyed our several days here so far. Micah has been in school, but we have spent much time with Joseph, and what a treat that has been.

Well, except for the near miss at breakfast yesterday morning that had trained staff running toward us ready to perform the Heimlich on Joseph. No worries. It was unnecessary. No harm; no foul.

As you can see (in the world’s worst selfie) shortly after the crisis was averted…..

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Friday Book Whimsy: Agatha Christie’s The Monogram Murders: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery

imgresThe newest thing seems to be authors taking over the writing of popular mystery series after the original author dies. Ace Atkins continued Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series. More recently author Kyle Mills continued the iconic Mitch Rapp series originated by the late Vince Flynn. It is my understanding that these authors have continued the series with the deceased author’s family’s permission.

I wasn’t aware, however, that there was a new Hercule Poirot book. SERIOUSLY?????

I was amused to find out very recently about Sophie Hannah’s new addition to mystery writer extraordinaire Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series. The reason for my amusement was that it has been said that by the later books, Christie was sick and tired of the somewhat annoying little Belgian detective. She is to have said “he was a detestable, bombastic, tiresome, egocentric little creep.

But he was a detestable, bombastic, tiresome, egocentric little creep who I absolutely ADORED. As did many others. So I shouldn’t have been surprise to see this addition.

Since Christie famously killed off the detective in her final Poirot offering Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, I wasn’t sure how Hannah was going to handle the new Poirot mystery. As it turns out, it is not subsequent to Curtain. Instead, it is just folded into his earlier life.

Hercule Poirot as portrayed by David Suchet in the wonderful PBS long-running series.

Hercule Poirot as portrayed by David Suchet in the wonderful PBS long-running series.

I was excited when I first began reading The Monogram Murders, though slightly apprehensive about another author besides Christie presenting Poirot, both in his appearance and actions, and by how the mystery would unfold. As much as I read mysteries, I admit I was rarely able to figure out the murderer in any of Christie’s books. Cheers to Dame Christie.

I started out optimistically, but I’m afraid I was soon disappointed. As hard as Hannah worked at presenting a reasonable imitation of the famous detective, it’s not surprising that she fell just short of success. Poirot did things in this book that he simply wouldn’t have done. It is hard to put my finger on what I mean, but if you are a fan of Poirot, you will understand. So then he was simply a detestable little creep.

Poirot has a new sidekick in this mystery, a Scotland Yard detective named Catchpool, and he is certainly no Arthur Hastings. I found him to be both unlikable and quite inept. It’s true Captain Hastings was not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but you couldn’t help but like him. Poirot and Catchpool worked together to solve the mystery of the murder of three people from the same small English village who share a dastardly secret.

I found the ending particularly unsatisfactory. One of Christie’s many strengths was that she could wrap it all up so satisfactorily, and all of the clues she sneakily placed throughout the book suddenly made sense. Hannah was not successful in this effort. The ending was frankly, terrifically confusing and chaotic. I found myself skimming the last confusing chapters because by that point I didn’t care who killed whom.

I’m thinking this might be the last attempt at adding to Hercule Poirot’s legacy.

Here is a link to the book.

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