Monday, December 27, 2010

Clouds of Witness

Ensconced in a luxurious Parisian hotel, Lord Peter Wimsey finds that his man Bunter has packed their things - Peter's brother, the Duke of Denver, has been arrested for murder of their sister Mary's fiance, Dennis Cathcart, and clearly Peter is the only person who can clear the somewhat dim Duke's name.  The Duke refuses to explain why he was wandering the moors at the time of Cathcart's murder and Lady Mary's deception has put the time of death into doubt.  Peter and his friend, Inspector Charles Parker of Scotland Yard follow a jeweled trail to Paris, across a boggy moor, and eventually to New York, with Peter arriving at his brother's trial in the House of Lords just in time to give the vital piece of evidence.  

I've read Clouds of Witness at least twice, and recently re-watched the BBC mini-series so nothing in the book was even slightly mysterious.  Because I could just sit back and enjoy the story, I noticed a somewhat comic subplot.  I don't think I'd noticed in previous readings how clear it is that Charles is in love with Mary from the beginning of the book, and Peter doesn't see it either.  When he realizes, he's shocked - not, as Charles first thinks, because of the class distinctions but because his sister has shown such terrible taste in men that he's afraid she's going to turn down his best friend in a fit of stupidity.

The Labors of Hercules

The Labors of Hercules may have been my introduction to Agatha Christie.  I remember the copy I took out of the library - a hardback with an aqua cover and a circular logo, apparently part of a series published specifically for libraries, and I remember reading it upstairs at my grandmother's house.  My grandmother died in January 1983, and I had the window open so this must have been the summer of 1982.  Or maybe I'm remembering incorrectly - maybe I read the book elsewhere (because I don't remember reading Agatha Christie before I started high school) or maybe I read it while my parents were preparing Grandmom's house for sale.

Either way, it's been nearly 30 years since I read The Labors of Hercules, and nearly 30 years since English 9 covered the labors of Hercules as well, and I only dimly remembered both.   Bits of plot, and occasional lines of dialog floated through the mist but I'd mostly forgotten "whodunit" so I could sit back and solve the mysteries as if they were new.  They're typical Christie, only stripped down to 15 or 20 pages - a clever plot with a single flaw for Hercule Poirot to discover, and a dash of romance or a happy ending here and there.  It's a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, but fairly ephemeral - middling, not top-level Christie.

All Around the Town

I haven't read a new Mary Higgins Clark book in about a decade.  I haven't re-read one of her books in quite a while either - after several years 'on probation,' I stopped buying new books and donated my backlist to the Book Corner.  She writes good beach books, but she fell into a rut of writing one of the same two books over and over again, and I got tired of them.

Last month, I noticed that the coffee shop where I buy my morning bagel and cocoa had a copy of All Around the Town, so I picked it up and worked my way through it in 5-minute intervals.  The story is fairly typical Clark (young, pretty, well-dressed woman from a world of casual affluence - an 8,000 square foot house in the 1970s, and an assistant prosecutor with a designer wardrobe? -  finds herself in mortal peril and saves herself seconds before the dashing hero completes the rescue).  The book starts with the kidnapping of 4-year-old Laurie Kenyon by an aspiring gospel singer and his wife.  When she's returned to her family two years later, her sister can see that she's been abused but their parents can't cope with the idea and shut it down.   

Fourteen years later, their parents die in a car accident and this trauma brings out the multiple personalities Laurie developed to protect herself from her abuser.  One of these personalities may or may not have been having an affair with a professor married to a gold-digging travel agent.  Naturally, when the professor is murdered, Laurie is the prime suspect.  Her sister, now a prosecutor, resigns from her office to take up Laurie's defense.  In the meantime, Laurie's abuser has become a top televangelist and rekindles his obsession with the girl.  It's a delicately balanced plot, with almost as many near-miss meetings as a screwball comedy but it works, and part of why it works is that the televangelists make minor mistakes which aren't caught because they're buried in conversations.  

There's another reason why I have a bit of a soft spot for All Around the Town.  In the late 80s and early 90s, I frequently ate at the Kenyon Diner in Willow Grove.  Sometimes alone, sometimes with my parents, and on Friday nights with my dad.  We'd sit in the back room where some older guys talked baseball and one of my proudest moments was when, at about 18 or 19, I got a "good point" response to one of my infrequent comments - a response which was my invitation to the ongoing discussion.  One of my solo visits to the Kenyon was on a Sunday morning, with a copy of All Around the Town.  An hour and about 75 pages later, I was approaching the quick-cut finale and there was a line forming at the door.  My waitress came by and refilled my coffee cup instead of asking if I was ready to leave.  That's why the Kenyon is in my personal Diner Hall of Fame.