Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Elisabeth Sladen: The Autobiography

Imagine you move into a new neighborhood, and the woman next door looks familiar - very familiar, but you can't place her.  A few weeks later, you're chatting on the doorstep and she invites you in for coffee.  Walking through the house, you see a piece of memorabilia that tells you where you know her from - 35 years ago, she spent a few years as the star of a long-running TV show.  You ask, and she admits that yes, she was an actress, and with some prompting she tells you about her career.

She tells you about growing up in Liverpool, taking drama classes as a child, and joining the National Youth Theatre (where her classmates included Helen Mirren and Diana Quick).  Back in Liverpool, she joined a repertory theater where a cast mate made her giggle when she was playing a corpse - they've been happily married for decades now, a truly devoted couple.  Opportunity took them to London and fate cast her in a now-iconic role.  Then?   Well, through a combination of typecasting, the relatively low status of her show's genre, and (she admits) tactical errors on her part, her career sort of fades away.  She goes to conventions devoted to her old show, has a daughter, and essentially retires around 40.

That's how Elisabeth Sladen: The Autobiography feels - like a conversation with a very nice lady who happened to be very famous for a few years and while she enjoyed it, has no need to dwell on it.  It's full of warm memories of friends and co-workers (sometimes bittersweet memories of those who have died), descriptions of the mid-70s working conditions at the BBC (let's just say that the actors are not quite as nostalgic about the cardboard-set era as I am), and a few mildly cautionary tales about missed opportunities.  She drops several names - famous, not-so-famous, and hey-it's-that-guy - and usually has nice things to say (although Jon Pertwee still comes off as a complete jerk on occasion).  The overall effect is, well, a pleasant conversation with someone who's had some interesting experiences.

Ms. Sladen's memoir doesn't end with that conversation.  Russell T. Davies brought her, and Sarah Jane Smith, back to Doctor Who in 2005, and then gave Sarah (and Lis) her own spin-off show, making her more famous in her 60s than she had been in her 30s.  Sadly, there will be no follow-up volume, because Ms. Sladen died at age 65, shortly after sending the manuscript to the publisher.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Death Comes as the End

My mom bought and read Death Comes as the End some time in the early 80s, shortly before I'd graduated from YA to Agatha Christie.  It must have been one of the first Christies I moved to my own shelf, and I tried out the "from the library of" embosser someone gave my dad for Christmas around that time.  Somehow, though, despite 30+ years of access and 30+ years of my ancient history minded mother's nagging, the book sat unopened until it popped up on my Agatha Christie group's reading list.

Recently widowed Reinseb returned to her father's estate and saw that nothing had changed.  Her father held tight to the responsibilities that he should have ceded to his sons and her sisters-in-law argued and sniped and manipulated their husbands, just as they had before Reinseb moved away.  Then her father, Imhotep, returned with a new concubine, a pretty young woman named Nofret who altered the household dynamics - and died violently while Imhotep was away on business.  Don't be fooled by the exotic setting; to Christie, Ancient Egypt is no different than an English country town.  Other violent deaths followed Nofret's, and Reinseb helps set the trap to unmask the murderer.  It's one of Christie's best novels, cleverly plotted (she "got"me, which doesn't happen very often), and the exotic setting added to rather than detracted from the mystery.  I'm surprised it's not better known.  Perhaps a faithfully adapted movie could solve that problem.

The Hypochondriacs: NIne Tormented Lives

The Hypochondriacs is essentially a collection of biographical essays, connected by contemporary or retrospective diagnoses.  While the sketches were interesting, the linkage was weak.  A few (Charles Dickens springs to mind) fits our current definition of someone who interprets ordinary variations in health (or the effects of Victorian overindulgence) as deathly illnesses, and other were indeed ill (Florence Nightingale probably developed PTSD and/or brusellosis during the Crimean War).  Others, like Glenn Gould, apparently had a variety of psychological problems besides hypochondria.  Unsurprisingly, six of the nine hypochondriacs lived in the 19th Century, when ill health was a way for ladies to escape the tiring yet mindless round of social calls and for gentlemen to explain away the natural effects of a rich diet and sedentary lifestyle, and the most interesting sections of The Hypochondriacs describe how the definition of hypochondria has changed over the years.

Monday, July 15, 2013


Hercule Poirot is a fictional character, and not even my favorite.  I've read Curtain at least once before, although long enough ago that I only remembered a small subplot, and yet I teared up a bit when Hercule Poirot died.

Agatha Christie got tired of Hercule Poirot long before her readers did, but there was little she could do other than have Ariadne Oliver complain about her own foreign-born detective.  It must have been cathartic to kill him off, even if she knew no one would read of his death until his creator was dead or dying herself.  Written during WWII, when Christie (along with much of London) spent sleepless nights hiding from the Blitz in the Underground, Curtain finally saw publication in 1975, shortly before Christie's death.  Christie avoided any "dating" references, but the manuscript's age shows.  There are no TVs at Styles (reborn as B&B of sorts), and Styles itself is still semi-rural despite being close to London and its sprawl.  Cash-poor gentry still live on declining shares rather than entering professions, and a woman with a university degree is called a doctor's "secretary" instead of his research assistant.  As a teenager, I didn't notice quite how dated Curtain is - 1975, although barely a decade in the past was the semi-distant past of my childhood - but this time, the differences between timeless-1945 and real-1975 jumped out at me.

My copy of Curtain says that it's "Hercule Poirot's Last and Greatest Case."  I found it to be more of a middling Christie, with a classic set-up.  Poirot, now wheelchair bound, invites the recently widowed Captain Hastings to join him at Styles to help him catch one last murder.  "X" has killed - not directly, but insidiously, through other people - at least five times, and Poirot believes X both will kill again and is currently staying at Styles.  Hastings job is to stop X.  Needless to say, Hastings not only does not identify X but also becomes unwittingly enmeshed with X's plot.  It's up to Poirot to solve the mystery and serve justice of a sort.  As in Murder on the Orient Express, the solution may be more "just" than "right," only this time, the instrument of justice also dies before the final page.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Reading Agatha Christie is like opening a time capsule.  Every time I open one of my old, slightly battered, paperbacks, I walk into a flood of memories.  Cover prices usually under $5, stamps from long-gone used book stores, out-of-fashion cover art, inserts, and odd bits I apparently used as bookmarks bring me back to my teens and early 20s.  The Mysterious Affair at Styles is one of the Christies I bought new, so there's no Book Swap mark, and it's about as unworn as a 30-year-old paperback can be after multiple readings.   I did find a card from a United Jersey MAC machine, so I must have last read this when I lived near Princeton - and then I remembered my plan to read all of Christie's books in order (I got up to Murder on the Links before, well, I don't know why I dropped that plan).  It's a Bantam paperback - for some reason, they published a handful of the titles which Pocket didn't - and looking at the cover art, I remember reading Christie's last-written book, Postern of Fate, and thinking something didn't add up. 

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is a time capsule in another sense as well.  It's Christie's first novel, published in 1920 and set during World War I.  While on sick leave after being injured on the front, Captain Hastings runs in to an old friend, Lawrence Cavindish, who invites him to stay with him at his stepmother's estate.  A country estate owned by a widow recently remarried to an unsuitable man, what could possibly go wrong?  The characters may have been surprised when Lawrence's stepmother died, apparently poisoned by her evening coffee, but readers expect it.  We also expect that everyone - her husband, her stepsons, her secretary, her daughter-in-law, and her "poor relation" (who works in a hospital dispensary) - has a motive and opportunity.  Only Captain Hastings and a Belgian refugee of his acquaintance (Hercule Poirot, of course) escape suspicion, and they solve the case.

What struck me on this reading was how although this was Christie's first novel, her formula was clearly set.  Hastings bumbles through the case, the innocent cast suspicion upon themselves while covering up lesser secrets, and the evidence clearly supports the surprise ending.  The Mysterious Affair at Styles feels like the work of a long established writer, hinting at Dame Agatha's enduring career.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Templar, The Queen, and Her Lover

I used to love Michael Jecks's mysteries featuring Sir Baldwin de Furnshill.  I don't anymore.  I still enjoy the scenes between Baldwin and his friend Simon Puttock, but they no longer solve mysteries I care about.  Baldwin is not a political creature - please send him back to Devon, Mr. Jecks.  I'm sure you can create some local murders for him to solve.

Edward II released his wife from house arrest in 1325, and made her his envoy in negotiations with her brother, Phillip IV of France.  Isabella's entourage includes musicians (who've been blackmailed into making the trip), spies (both for and against the Queen), knights, ladies-in-waiting, and an unwilling Sir Baldwin.  Someone drowns one of the musicians in a gutter before the group set out, then someone stabs one of the knights with Baldwin's knife.  This happened about 100 pages into the book, and it's about where I lost track and lost interest.  I'm still not sure who committed either murder, or how they tied into Isabella's diplomatic mission or her affair with Roger Mortimer.  Jecks overcomplicated The Templar, The Queen, and Her Lover with too many bland characters, too many POV and setting changes, and too many disparate threads.  I have two or three more of his books on my shelf, and I will read them.  After that?   I don't know.  I feel like I've invested too much in this series to give up (literally - I've gotten most of the books from amazon.co.uk), but that's also why buying the next book in the series is, literally, a bit of an investment.