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#1920Club. The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christie – how you can hear French in Poirot’s English

April 15, 2020 25 comments

The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christie (1920). French title: La mystérieuse affaire de Styles.

This time I was received with a smile. Monsieur Poirot was within. Would I mount? I mounted accordingly.

When I heard again about the #1920Club hosted by Simon, I decided to read The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christie. I have fond memories of binge reading Agatha Christie when I was thirteen. I borrowed her books in French at the library and they were all in the collection Le Masque. I’ve always been fond of detective stories. In primary school I read a lot of Famous Five, Nancy Drew or Fantômette. I guess that Agatha Christie was the next step.

It’s been years since I’ve last read a book by her and I’d never read one featuring Hercule Poirot in the original and what a delight it was.

The Mysterious Affair At Styles is the first book with Hercule Poirot as a detective. Set in a rich country house in Essex during WWI, old Emily Inglethorp dies in her room from strychnine poisoning. We have the usual setting of such stories: the lady had just remarried to Alfred Inglethorp who is twenty years her junior. Her stepsons, John and Lawrence Cavendish, live with her and hate her new husband. She also has a young protégée, Cynthia. Hastings is friends with John and has arrived at the estate for a few weeks of R&R.

Poirot, a former detective from the Beligan police is living in the village near Styles. He’s a refugee from the war and is delighted to meet Hastings again. They will investigate the murder and give a hand to Scotland Yard when Inspector Japp arrives to take charge of the case.

I will not get into the plot as it’s the usual Agatha Christie book and we’ve all read some. I found Hastings delightful with his naïve and overdeveloped ego, he has such a refreshing voice.

The setting is the usual lovely English countryside where people’s main hobby is walking in the woods. I’ve never seen so many characters having walks than in English literature, it’s like a national sport.

We also hear the tone of other books of that time, the Downtown Abbey comments about faithful servants and the uncomfortable little remarks about foreigners and Jews.

For this reader, the best thing about The Mysterious Affair At Styles was discovering Poirot in the original instead of reading him in French translation. Poirot uses a lot of French words in his English like Pouf!, Voilà, mon ami, Voyons!, A merveille!. He swears like Captain Haddock in Tintin (Milles tonnerres!), not that I’ve ever heard this insult in real life. He makes little grammar mistakes like using his instead of its, a common thing for French people because there is no neutral gender in French. The reader can’t forget he’s a foreigner.

Poirot speaks English like a French native and makes delightful errors, even funnier for me who heard the French behind his English sentences. Let’s see:

Excuse me, mon ami, you dressed in haste, and your tie is on one side. Permit me. Poirot uses Permit me instead of Allow me because in French it would be Permettez.

I comprehend perfectly. instead I understand perfectly, a literal translation of Je comprends parfaitement a natural way to speak for a French speaker.

A little minute,(…) I come is the direct translation of the French, Une petite minute, j’arrive. One of the most difficult step in speaking another language is to know how things are said. In English, you’d say something like Give me a minute, I’ll be down soon, which is not the French way to express this.

Deciphering when to use little or small, forgetting to add down, off, up, etc. after verbs and understanding when to use the present continuous are common difficulties for French speakers who learn how to speak English.

You are annoyed, is it not so? brought me back to the classroom and the endless lessons about how to conjugate the equivalent of the French invariable n’est-ce pas? (literally is it not so?)

My favourite Frenchism remains the incomparable I will mount to my room, literally Je vais monter dans ma chambre.

To be fair, Agatha Christie also shows what happens when an Englishman tries to use a French word. When I read Me and Moosier here have met before, it took me a few seconds to understand that Moosier was Monsieur, as I had no clue of how an English native would pronounce Monsieur!

Many thanks to Kaggsy for reminding me of this blogging event, I had a great time with The Mysterious Affair At Styles and reading Poirot made me chuckle many times.

 

Lightning Strikes by Ned Crabb – Mystery in the countryside, US mode

December 22, 2019 4 comments

Lightning Strikes by Ned Crabb (2014) French title: Meurtres à Willow Pond. Translated by Laurent Bury

I swear that when I purchased Lightning Strikes by Ned Crabb, I was drawn to it because of its classic British crime vibe in an American setting. Indeed, it is set in a country lodge in Maine, a sort of US equivalent of the country house in England. A murder occurs and the murderer is among the family and guests. See what I mean with the “classic British crime vibe”? The fact that the lodge is specialized in fishing trips with two family members as renown fishing guides is incidental and has nothing to do with reading William G. Tapply or John Gierach. That said, Ned Crabb put as much care and craft in the plot and in the characters as Gierach in making his flies.

The book opens on Alicia and Six Godwin, retired university teachers, who live on their compound on Winsokkett Pond. They love books and fishing and live for them. They are the happiest with a book in their hands on their porch or on the water with their fishing rod. They have a good marriage, with a warm complicity and the reader likes them immediately.

They are related to Iphigeny Seldon, “Gene” who owns and runs Cedar Lodge, a famous upscale fishing lodge on Willow Pond. Gene is over seventy, she runs everything in a military way. She’s loud, insensitive and relishes in the power she has as the master of Cedar Lodge. She’s a spinster and after her brother and sister-in-law’s accidental death, she took over Cedar Lodge and operates it with her nephews and niece.

Brad Seldon is her oldest nephew. He’s 48, an alcoholic, a celebrated fishing guide whose reputation makes guests book their vacation at Cedar Lodge. He’s married to Renée, who is ten years younger than him. Their marriage has been dead for a while but Renée doesn’t want a divorce if she can’t get a nice settlement, one that Brad can’t afford without his inheritance. And Gene holds the purse strings, if Gene-the-tomboy ever had a purse.

Merill Beauchamp is Brad’s sister. She’s 45, addicted to cocaine and is the other fishing guide asset of Cedar Lodge. She’s married to Huntley Beauchamp, a crook. Their marriage is a sham, they both want out but, guess what, Beauchamp won’t let go without a nice settlement. Now Merrill is involved with Bruno Gabreau, a French fellow fishing guide and she really wants a divorce but she can’t have it unless she puts her hands on her inheritance.

Kipper is the third Seldon sibling. He works in managing Cedar Lodge and he’s the only one who has a decent relationship with Gene. He’s 40, gay and has a relationship with Cedar Lodge’s cook, a Frenchman named Jean-Pierre Lemaire. His lover is tired of living out in the woods in Maine and wants to open a restaurant in New York. Kipper is all for it but he needs his inheritance to fund the restaurant.

Beauchamp is Cedar Lodge’s financial advisor and he embezzled money. He’s afraid that Gene will find out. He took measures against it, mostly to have people temper with the books and hide the missing money. But now he’s not sure that he didn’t put himself in the hands of gangsters and brought them to Cedar Lodge.

They all hate Gene. They all need money. They all contemplate murder. And now Gene organized a family weekend to tell them that she changed her will. They all converge to Cedar Lodge for this family reunion. So, when Gene dies during a thunder night at the lodge, there are plenty of suspects.

Lightning Strikes merges Nature Writing with Crime Fiction, the two wrapped in a light touch of humor. There are beautiful descriptions of the nature around the lodge and the Godwins’ compound. In that respect, it’s very similar to Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. Lightning Strikes has the same slow-life tempo as any Nature Writing book, despite all the twists and turns of the story.

The well-oiled mechanism of the classic whodunnit is there too. We are both on familiar and unfamiliar grounds. The minor characters are excellent too: the old playboy who wants to marry Gene as a retirement plan, the pseudo-British guests, Tory and Nelson, a couple of tourists who aren’t at the lodge only to fish trout. The sheriff team is not used to dealing with murders like this. Sheriff Doucette (which, for a French, equals to reading Sheriff Sweetie) is not sure about what to do and Crabb opens a window to the team’s dynamics. These interactions are delightful too. And the Godwins play the sheriff’s assistants and love it.

It’s not a highly memorable book but, like Weekend at Thrackley, it’s entertaining.

It’s a Gallmeister book, and as always, the translator is excellent. I loved how he transcribed the American way of saying Beauchamp, because I never would have guessed it was Bi-tcheum.

 

Murder chez Proust. A mystery by Estelle Monbrun – Not everyone can be Agatha Christie

August 4, 2019 4 comments

Murder chez Proust. A mystery by Estelle Monbrun (1994) Original French title: Meurtre chez Tante Léonie

If you’ve ever read Proust, you know all about Aunt Léonie, Combray, Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way. Murder chez Proust by Estelle Monbrun is set in Illiers, the village that inspired Combray and where Proust’s aunt used to live. My recent visit to the Hôtel Littéraire Le Swann prompted me to pick up this cozy crime novel.

When the book opens, the Proust Association is about to welcome Proust aficionados in Illiers for a tourism & literature stay. Unfortunately, Emilienne, the cleaning lady in charge of Aunt Léonie’s house finds Mrs Bertrand-Verdon, the president of the Proust Association, murdered. As we get acquainted with the VIPs of the conference, we realize that each of them has a good reason to dislike Mrs Bertrand-Verdon.

Her secretary, Gisèle Dambert, is writing her PhD thesis about Proust. She inherited of a treasure, Proust’s famous 1905 notebooks that his governess Céleste Albaret had to destroy. Gisèle had informed Mrs Bertrand-Verdon of this important discovery and now regrets it.

Professor Verdaillon, Gisèle’s PhD supervisor is about to publish a complete edition of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. What would be the value of this edition is the 1905 notebooks were to reappear? M. Desforges works for the publisher who will market this edition. He used to be Mrs Bertrand-Verdon’s lover and his credibility has faded away recently. He can’t afford this edition to be a failure. M. de Chareilles was about to marry Mrs Bertrand-Verdon. He’s a traditional nobleman and it’s not certain that he knows all about his fiancée’s background. Professor Rainsford is an American academics who has been in contact with Mrs Bertrand-Verdon too. He seems to have things to hide as well.

All the important people of this literary microcosm have something to hide or a good reason to fear or dislike the victim. She was quite manipulative and had the upper hand on their future. So who did it? Commissaire Jean-Pierre Foucheroux and Inspector Leila Djemani are in charge of the investigation.

Estelle Monbrun is the penname of Elyane Dezon-Jones, a teacher of contemporary French literature in the USA. (Barnard College and Washington University in St Louis) She’s a specialist of Proust and Marguerite Yourcenar. Murder chez Proust will be nice for Proust nuts. It’s full of literary nudges about In Search of Lost Time and Proust’s biography. It’s fun to track them in the text.

Estelle Monbrun also knows how to write and how to describe the quiet French countryside. Her book sounds timeless. If you put aside the Proustian details, the village and the villagers reminded me of St Mary Mead. The best characters are the police, with a commissaire who limps after an accident and mourns his wife and a female inspector of North African origins who has a lot to prove to herself.

BUT. I’m sure you were waiting for the but. Even if Estelle Monbrun ticks all the right boxes to write an Agatha-Christie branded whodunnit, it doesn’t work. It’s bland like a poorly executed imitation.

This is where you see that crime fiction is a noble genre too. You may know how to write, how to assemble plausible details and use a believable setting for a cozy crime, it’s not enough. You need talent to create a story with interesting police characters, with characters that feel like flesh-and-blood people and with actions that are believable.

Back to Michael Connelly and how I thought that The Black Echo was perfectly executed. Connelly has the craft to do that, and even if he’s not a literary writer the way Chandler is, he has a huge talent as a storyteller. Here, the ingredients are there on paper but Estelle Monbrun didn’t manage to cook a good story. Storytelling is a talent per se and excellent crime fiction is an art as difficult to handle as more literary genres.

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah & Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

November 24, 2017 19 comments

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah (2014) // Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James. (2011)

I usually don’t write about two books in the same billet but this time I’ll make an exception for these two crime fiction novels that I’d qualify as fan fiction books. I’m not particularly attracted to ersatz of classics or spin offs. I received The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah with my subscription to Quais du Polar and I put it on the shelf, not particularly attracted to this new investigation featuring Hercule Poirot, even if it’s been published with the consent of Agatha Christie’s heirs. I got tempted by Death Comes to Pemberley because it was written by PD James and I thought there was enough sass and wits in Elizabeth Bennet to change her into a funky amateur sleuth.

How wrong I was.

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah turned up to be an easy and rather pleasurable read. Hercule Poirot is hiding in a boarding house in London to make everyone believe he left the country. He wants some rest but also some familiarity and decided to play tourist in London. In his lodgings, he gets acquainted to Inspector Catchpool, a young policeman from Scotland Yard. When a peculiar triple murder is committed in the hotel Bloxham, Catchpool is overwhelmed by the investigation and Poirot offers his services. Follows a typical whodunnit plot.

Now Death Comes to Pemberley. *rolling my eyes and smacking my forehead* What was PD James thinking when she wrote this?

We’re at the eve of Pemberley’s great ball when Lydia arrives in a rush and cries that Wickham and his friend Denny disappeared in the woods and that she heard the sound of bullets. She’s hysterical and Darcy, Bingley and Colonel Fitzwilliam brave the night and the wind to go and find Wickham and his friend. When they arrive on the scene, they discover that Denny is dead and Wickham is prostrated on his friend’s body and repeats that he killed him. Now, what really happened in these dark and hunted woods? I bet you’re dying to…read something else. And you would be right.

While The Monogram Murders was pleasant read, Death Comes to Pemberley was totally ridiculous. Elizabeth Bennet must have been brainwashed on her wedding day. She lost all her spirit and her sparks to become a dull and dutiful mother and wife. Yuck. A loving doormat in admiration with her husband, that’s what she is. She has the psychological depth of a moth, Darcy sounds like a carpet, if carpets could talk. The book is peppered with unnecessary reminders of the original story, as if this could have other readers than Jane Austen’s fans.

These two books have something in common though: none of them manages to recreate the magic of the originals. They lack of warmth, they’re not realistic. The Monogram Murders doesn’t bring you back to the London of Agatha Christie’s time. And Hercule Poirot is not smug enough. I missed the slightly outdated tone of Agatha Christie’s novels, this special tone that sends you back to a time when boarding houses were common. Sophie Hannah resuscitated a passable Poirot, but you couldn’t mix him up with the original if you were reading this blindly, without knowing the writer’s name. And Death Comes to Pemberley kills more than Denny, it kills the original characters and morphs them into weak and sad puppets. Lizzie had the potential to be a fantastic sleuth, exasperating her husband by playing amateur detective and breaking out of social conventions. What a disappointment! And I will spare you the mawkish passages about her and Darcy’s marital bliss. Gag. Poor, poor Jane Austen! This is not crime fiction, it’s a crime against fiction.

The good news is your TBR is not going to grow after reading my billet. Count your blessings. We should just reread Pride and Prejudice.

One doesn’t trifle with crime fiction

May 10, 2015 15 comments

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by Silvina Ocampo and Adolfo Bioy Casares (1946) French title: Ceux qui aiment, haïssent (translated from the Spanish by André Gabastou)

Preamble: It’s an Argentinean novel but it’s so impregnated with British crime fiction literature that it calls for British spelling. So, American readers, humour written like this is not a typo.

Ocampo_aimeWritten in 1946, Where There’s Love, There’s Hate is the first mystery novel in Argentinean literatue. It is written according to the genre of murder parties, Agatha Christie like.

Our narrator is Dr Humberto Huberman, retelling the story after the events and coming back to his home sweet home. When the book opens, he’s going to stay at the Hotel Central at the sea resort Bosque del Mar. The hotel is run by his relatives and he’s headed there to kill two birds with one stone: he will visit with his family and write the scenario a film maker has ordered. Contrary to what you’d think, Dr Humberto Huberman is neither a writer nor a doctor in literature but a physician. Writing is his hobby.

After settling in his room at the hotel, he goes to the beach for a walk and overhears a conversation between a party of four. Two sisters, Mary and Emilia are accompanied by a Dr Cornejo and Emilia’s fiancé, Enrique Atuel. Mary wants to go swimming and her sister says it’s too dangerous while Dr Cornejo considers that it’s fine. Mary goes and shortly after, she appears to be in distress and Emilia rescues her while the men are still on the beach, fighting for a bathing suit before doing anything. So there are tensions among that group.

During the night, Mary goes missing and is found dead. The police arrive on the premises and soon a terrible storm locks everyone up in the hotel.

Follows an artfully written whodunit which reminded me of the film L’heure zéro by Pascal Thomas. It’s the adaptation Agatha Christie’s novel, Towards Zero. The aim of the authors was to write a mystery novel according to the codes of the genre and it’s wonderfully done. I have read a lot of books by Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth and I found the usual scenes and topics of this kind of literature. You have everything: a bystander as a narrator who will play amateur sleuth, a closed-doors situation, several people who could have wished Mary’s death, a sea resort, ridiculous policemen who are in dire need of pointers to lead the investigation, a storm to add danger and isolation, a strange child with a mysterious past, unrequited love, tea-time in the purest English fashion, a character who’s passionate about railways timetables, a scene where everyone’s reunited in the salon to discover who’s guilty and a mirror effect as the victim’s profession was to translate British crime fiction novels into Spanish. It is told in a rather playful tone from someone who’s telling a good story. It’s full of humour and marvellous observations.

And yet, it didn’t work for me.

All the ingredients are there and I wasn’t taken by it. Where There’s Love, There’s Hate never really caught my attention and I didn’t care to know who had killed Mary. I remained aloof and I kept forgetting who was who. It took me a while to finish it when I should have read it in one or two sittings. If the aim of the experience was to write a brilliant pastiche of a mystery novel then it’s achieved. If it was more than an Exercice de Style then for me, the job wasn’t done. I had the same experience with The Yiddish Policeman Union by Michael Chabon. It sounded fake.

Jacqui has a totally different opinion on this one and her review is well worth reading here.

PS : Don’t ask me why the French edition has such a cover. I don’t see that it has anything to do with the book.

 

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