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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Parallel Points in Agatha and Dorothy

Caution: Spoilers ahead! If you have not read Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers mysteries and do not want any clues, do not read this post!

Agatha Christie
People on social media are doing a lot of themed contributions. There are picture themes for Instagram on different days of the week, and before that there were Throwback Thursdays for Twitter and Facebook which still go on and on.

But well before any of these platforms could have been dreamed up, there were two of the brightest mystery authors of the twentieth century, sitting down to tea one day and discussing what might be a fun situation for a mystery.

“I know,” said one to the other. “What about a murder where the dentist is the victim, only he’s not the real victim?”

Agatha Christie wrote One, Two, Buckle My Shoe in which Hercule Poirot goes to the dentist and his dentist is murdered shortly after; only of course, the dentist was not the actual target. One of his patients had turned up at a very inopportune time and place for the villain.

Dorothy L. Sayers and Eric the Skull
Meanwhile, Dorothy L. Sayers wrote “In the Teeth of the Evidence” in which Lord Peter Wimsey goes to the dentist and his dentist tells him he has to identify another dentist’s burnt corpse by its dental records. Only, of course, the murdered dentist turns out to be somebody else altogether.

The two authors must have once agreed that house parties and crime go together like . . . well, tea and crumpets. “We must have a stolen pearl necklace where the only suspects are the members of the house party and the hiding place is unique.”

So of course Agatha Christie went off and wrote the Tommy and Tuppence Beresford short story, “The Affair of the Pink Pearl” in which the necklace clasp breaks and its owner puts it down on a side table during a game of bridge. The large, famous pink pearl pendant is taken off the necklace, and its hiding place is a clever surprise.

Dorothy L. Sayers wrote a story in which Lord Peter is one of the guests only because of “a touching spirit of unreasonable hope” on the part of the parents of a single young woman, who has a necklace of famous pearls, which of course she takes off during the house party games and lays down on a table. (Why do owners of fantastically valuable pearl necklaces take them off before the party is over, and if they must, why lay them on any old table?) The hiding place for these stolen pearls is quite ingenious, discoverable only by the coincidence of a woman’s taste for modern d├ęcor and the detective’s ability to find the dropped clue exactly in the place where his eyes would be directed to the pearls.

When the two authors agreed that it would be a great thing to have a poisoner build up an immunity to a poison in order to do away with a rich relative while seemingly innocently partaking of the same deadly meal, Dorothy Sayers wrote the amazingly complicated and ingenious novel Strong Poison. But before that, Agatha Christie used the idea in her Tommy and Tuppence Beresford collection, Partners in Crime, for the story “The House of Lurking Death.”

Agatha Christie’s “The Unbreakable Alibi” may have contained two ideas that Dorothy Sayers chose to put into separate stories. The previously unknown twin is also in Sayers’ “The Image in the Mirror.” The siblings who collude to make the detective think they are somewhere they could not possibly be is also in Sayers’ “Absolutely Elsewhere.” All three stories are, as I keep saying, the work of genius.

The authors must have had one of their brainstorming sessions around Christmastime, for Christmas and crime are another of those natural pairs like the tea and crumpets. In Agatha Christie’s “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding,” Poirot finds a royal ruby hidden in a traditional pudding intended to be eaten at the new year, but an accident brings it to the dining room for Christmas. The Dorothy Sayers short story already referenced, “The Necklace of Pearls,” features as its setting a country house Christmas with all its Victorian-Edwardian trappings.

Agatha Christie decided to complicate the Christmas theme by adding a supernatural element, a puzzle element, and a mysterious will, for a story with everything packed in it! The Christmas setting in “The Clergyman’s Daughter” finds Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence spending the holiday investigating a poltergeist in a house that a mother and daughter have inherited without the money from the estate to allow them to keep it. The solution to where the money from the will ended up is solved when they find the old lady’s papers with puzzle anagrams in them.

The Sayers story along similar lines is “The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will,” minus the Christmas setting and without anything supernatural. Lord Peter finds a crossword puzzle in the tile work of a pond, and the clues in the papers in the attic that lead to the correct will.

But Sayers does put the supernatural together with a startling will in “The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention,” in which Lord Peter sees a ghost carriage pulled by four headless white horses.

Both authors spoofed spiritualism and mediums in their novels Strong Poison and Dumb Witness. They must have had a good time discussing all the frauds and their practices in preparation for writing those books.

Supernatural dreams received treatment by both authors too. Dorothy L. Sayers put a seemingly prophetic dream in the story “Striding Folly,” which enables the innocent man to escape being framed. Agatha Christie’s story, “The Dream,” has Poirot listening to a man tell him he has a recurring dream in which he shoots himself, and the dream seems to come true a week later.

The ladies must have agreed that a costume ball, with all its possibilities for mistaken identity by the witnesses where there is a murder, would be a great setting. Accordingly, Agatha Christie wrote “The Affair at the Victory Ball,” giving her six main characters at the ball the costumes of Commedia dell’arte: Harlequin, Punchinello and Punchinella, Pierrot and Pierette, and Columbine. Ten years later Dorothy Sayers published “The Queen’s Square,” in which somebody says to Lord Peter, “You make a splendid Jack of Diamonds, though. Such a good idea of Lady Deverill’s, to make everybody come as a game. It cuts out all those wearisome pierrots and columbines.” !! Was this a criticism of Agatha Christie’s costumed ball? No, right away a man appears costumed  as a billiard table and we’re told he can’t rest except to perch briefly against one of the taller radiators which are too hot to sit on. It’s too funny to resist. In both stories, the witnesses think they see a person whose costume they know, and in both cases, they are mistaken.

There are more stories and parallels and similarities, but this will do to give you the idea. It’s fascinating to compare and contrast the treatments in each of the authors’ stories. No doubt with the incredibly prolific Christie, there are multiple examples of many of the ideas where Dorothy Sayers, ceasing to write mysteries much after World War II, limited herself to one treatment of each idea.

They were friends, we know. They were both members of the Detection Club, Sayers serving as president from 1947 to her death, and Christie serving as president immediately after her. But were there any exchanges of ideas over the tables? No doubt.

Detection Club Oath, sworn with one hand on Eric the Skull:

Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on, nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?
I do.
Do you solemnly swear never to conceal a vital clue from the reader?
I do.
Do you promise to observe a seemly moderation in the use of Gangs, Conspiracies, Death-Rays, Ghosts, Hypnotism, Trap-Doors, Chinamen, Super-Criminals and Lunatics; and utterly and forever to forswear Mysterious Poisons unknown to Science?
I do.
Will you honour the King’s English?
I will.

“If you fail to keep your promises may other writers anticipate your plots, may your publishers do you down in your contracts, may total strangers sue you for libel, may your pages swarm with misprints and may your sales continually diminish. Amen.”

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Sunday Evening Popcorn

In the late 1970s my college roommates and I started a tradition of having a bowl of popcorn on Sunday evenings. We spread the tradition through the families of various boyfriends, especially the one family in which my roommate and I were dating brothers. We and a crowd of mixed singles would gather at the brothers’ house Sunday evening, and they’d take out the huge, heavy, iron pan with the glass lid and set it on the stove. Turning the flame to high, one of us would carefully pour in the oil and drop two kernels of popcorn into it. Everybody would stand around, watching for the kernels to pop. As soon as they exploded, we all cheered and poured in the rest of the kernels and put the lid on.

One summer vacation, I took the tradition home to my parents and sister. My parents have always loved having popcorn, so it was easy to motivate them to make it a regular weekly undertaking. Our dogs were certainly thrilled. My sister-the-future-vet already knew popcorn was bad for dogs, but somehow our two labrador retrievers were irresistible beggars and she couldn’t do anything with them and popcorn. I liked throwing popcorn up in the air and catching it in my mouth. The dogs always got some that way.(They really didn’t get much.)

After I got married, my husband and I started to have popcorn on Sunday nights, but then one or the other of us would start a diet, and the other one would have to sneak popcorn some time when the dieter wasn’t around. The Sunday night tradition fell away.

Besides, there were air poppers and automatic-other-types-of-poppers that my husband bought for me, thinking they would replace the heavy pot I preferred that there wasn’t really room for in any of our cupboards. But I never really liked air-popped popcorn, and the other types of poppers never worked as well as the stove and heavy pan. After a long time of not being used to doing popcorn on the stove, I tried again and burned up the pan pretty badly. My husband bought me another one and I burned that one up too.

We retreated to microwave popcorn for a number of years. Very dissatisfying, and understandably, our popcorn habits never really got back to normal.

Then this past Christmas I got heavy pans from two different givers and thought my old pan whose handle had worn out and broken could be given to charity—but suddenly I thought I’d keep it and have a popcorn pan again.

Last Sunday I put some oil in the pan and put it on the burner and poured in some popcorn kernels from a bag I’d found in the bottom of a bin of various legumes. The kernels popped half-heartedly, but the results were tiny and greasy and tasted like cardboard. I checked the date on the bag. The suggested use-by date was SEVEN years ago. Hm. I threw the bag away and bought a new one.

Tonight I poured in the oil, put in two kernels, and my husband and I watched until they popped. I put in the rest of the kernels just to cover the bottom of the pan, put the glass lid on, and in a minute watched them merrily popping up to the top of the pan. The popcorn was fluffy and white and tasted perfect.

The Sunday night tradition is back.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Puzzled by a Puzzle

My mother and I continue to put together jigsaw puzzles. It has been almost a year since I posted about the puzzles we have done. So here they are.

The Grand Canyon was our first stop early last spring. Everybody told me this puzzle was “too hard” and nobody helped, much. So I got all stubborn about it and did it myself.

After the Grand Canyon we picked this tropical scene. Everybody helped with this one. It was too much fun not to! It made me think of the time my husband, son and self visited cousins in Southern California and took a trip one day out to Catalina Island on a huge catamaran. The dolphins met us a mile out and played at the bow and sides of the craft almost all the way. I loved being out there on the sea; my husband and son got a little seasick and went inside to be warm and not to feel the motion so much. The air was salty and wet; there was a fog part of the way, and the sky was iron gray with overcast. It was heaven.

This charming petshop folk-art scene came next, closely followed by another in the same style, a florist shop.
Everybody who visited us helped with these puzzles. Brothers, cousins, friends, nieces, etc.

Then came the castle of mad King Louis of Bavaria, Neuschwanstein. I am a bit curious about this picture. Most of the pictures I have seen online of this castle are from the other way around. I wonder if it is not easy to get to this side to photograph the castle? How can I find out? Go to Bavaria and see for myself! Of course! What a great idea!

Although very beautiful, this birdhouse puzzle was extremely hard for us. My mother always likes to have the border of the puzzle done first, but that was not possible with this style. Then she wanted to put together the birds, but she found them quite difficult. My real difficulty was in restraining myself from finishing too much and incurring her displeasure. When it was done at last, she really liked it. So we were happy with it.

These next two, in the same folk-art style as two previous, we finished in the summer. I forgot to take a photo of our finished version of the girl with the milk pail, but here is the picture on the box. We enjoyed these puzzles; the style lends itself to easy completion by a variety of levels of puzzlers, which perfectly describes our household in the summer with various ages of relatives whizzing in and out all season.

This lovely mountain lion arrived on our puzzle table at the end of the summer. What a noble looking face and magnificent paws. I was reminded of the time right after we moved into our present house, when our neighbors to the west who had built in the months just before us told us that one time they had come over during the building process to inspect how things were going, and a young cougar had got itself stuck in one of their window wells for the basement windows! Yikes.

After a very warm summer, this cool walk in the woods was just the ticket. It was one of those puzzles you simply put together based on the shapes of the pieces, not the picture they make, because there are so few discernible pictures that close up.

To put us in the mood for Christmas, my mother got out this adorable puppy puzzle in November. She worked on the puppy while I did everything around it. We left it on our table for a full month. This was our favorite puzzle of the year.

The week after Christmas we did two nativity puzzles.
We did not actually like either one, so I did not photograph the second one. The first problem was the glitter on the pieces. It was so rough and stiff that it flaked off easily. Very annoying. Then when we were about finished, we looked again at the way the faces of the Holy Family were cut up for the pieces, and from a distance they looked very disturbing, as if Mary had an abnormally large nose, and as if the baby Jesus had had a lobotomy with a terrible stitching job that day. As soon as we were finished with these puzzles we gave them away.

The castle puzzles we received for Christmas. The smaller 300-piece puzzle was for my mother, whose puzzling ability has sadly deteriorated this year. She was not able to do much on her puzzle, as her eyes were not working well enough. She really likes this puzzle though. She is hoping her eyes get better so that she can do this puzzle again later this year.

The larger Irish castle puzzle of 1000 pieces was for me. My mother did part of the border, as she had the small castle puzzle. I finished it and discovered the first missing piece then. I hoped it was hidden among the other pieces, but with mathematical precision I laid out the pieces in order of color and shape in neat rows, and it was not there. When I was finished with the sky, I knew one of those pieces was missing as well. Later I discovered a third missing piece, but when I put the puzzle away I found the third missing piece, part of the grass and steps, lying on top of that puppy puzzle box where it had no business to have landed. The really weird thing is that there were three pieces extra: duplicates exactly of three edge pieces I already had (see the bottom left corner). These had stumped my poor mother, and I had been frustrated trying to finish the border until I realized about them being duplicates. Why did this happen, and how? It is a mystery we will never solve.