Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie

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This is not a traditional review of Christie’s most famous book hence it’s inclusion in the ‘Book Tales’ category on the blog. How could I say anything about the story that has not already been said? Sharp eyed readers will have noticed that despite me being English my copy of the book featured above is an American Pocket Book edition and there is a very good reason  for that which gives a personal link to the story. Thirty three years ago I travelled on the Orient Express with my then girlfriend, who was American, and she brought a copy of this book for me which we both read whilst on the train.  Another thing you may notice is right at the bottom ‘Formally titled MURDER IN THE CALAIS COACH’ this is a reference to the habit Christie’s American publishers Dodd, Mead & Co. had of altering the titles of her books which does make any bibliography quite messy. Other examples (Original English title first) include:-

  • The Sittaford Mystery – The Murder at Hazelmoor
  • Lord Edgeware Dies – Thirteen at Dinner
  • Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? – The Boomerang Clue
  • One, Two, Buckle My Shoe – The Patriotic Murders
  • Dumb Witness – Poirot Loses a Client

and many more.

Rereading the novel again, probably for the first time in three decades, I was struck by how well it was written. Even though I of course knew the solution, as does almost everyone with an interest in detective novels, it didn’t matter, I still enjoyed how Christie developed the story and Poirot’s slow realisation of just what a fantastic solution it is. It is also a ‘locked room mystery’ in that the train is stuck in a snowdrift on its way from Istanbul to Paris so the murderer could not have escaped from the train and it is also impossible for Poirot to verify any clues he may discover or even who anybody is with the outside world as they are completely cut off. The train gets stuck just after Vinkovci (spelt Vincovci in the book) which is now in Croatia so on the southern route on the map below just as the line turns north to head to Budapest.

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This poster is from the winter season of 1888/9, forty years before the book is set but gives a hint of the glamour associated with the journey. It’s a trip Christie made several times whilst visiting her husband on his archaeological digs in Iraq so she knew the operation well and the story of the Armstrong family with the kidnapping of the baby daughter and the subsequent deaths which is the background to this book is a straight borrowing from the Lindbergh case which had happened a couple of years earlier. Everyone reading this book when it first came out would have been familiar with the Lindbergh story which had been a worldwide sensation in 1932, to my mind it was somewhat tactless of Christie to so obviously take this tragic case and turn it into a murder mystery of her own, there are too many similarities to be comfortable if you know about the original.

I also included the poster in this blog as it was this, rather than Christie’s novel, which inspired a trip on what was left of the Orient Express back in the late 1980’s. By then, although it still left Paris at 9am each day it only made it to Bucharest and by the time it got there it was hardly an express and the glamour was long gone on the entire journey. By adding on extra trains from Bucharest to Belgrade and then on via Sofia to Istanbul I did manage to stay at least one night in all the cities listed in the poster heading. It was natural that we would read Murder On The Orient Express whilst travelling on it. Nowadays there is only the luxury private train that carries that name and recreates the glamour that Agatha Christie would have known in the 1920’s and 30’s when she was a passenger and which she used as the setting for, if not her best then certainly her best known work.

A somewhat scary flashback photo below, reading this very book whilst travelling between Paris and Munich on the first stage of our Orient Express journey back in 1987.

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Tartarin of Tarascon – Alphonse Daudet

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Unusually for books on my shelves I have no memory of acquiring this one, it was printed by the Folio Society in 1968 and I suspect I purchased it with others in a mixed lot of Folio Society volumes when I really wanted some of the others in the collection. It does mean that now that I have come to take it down off the shelves I realise that I have no idea who Alphonse Daudet was and no concept as to what the book will be about. I don’t even know when the book was originally written as the only date inside is that of the translation by J M Cohen which is the same year as publication suggesting that this was an early translation for the Folio Society who up to this time tended to rely on reprinting already translated works.

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For reasons that will be explained later this novel took far longer to read than such a short book should have. It was written in 1872 and is clearly set at the same time and the first section takes places in the Provençal town of Tarascon, Daudet was a French novelist and writer of short stories, although his literary output was relatively modest in comparison to his English contemporary Charles Dickens, he has numerous schools and colleges named after him around France which attest to his popularity in his time. Tarascon is depicted in the book as populated by such dedicated hunters that there is no wildlife left in the area and the men of the town go out each week with their guns and shoot their caps which are thrown into the air for the purpose as there is nothing else to fire on. The one who most destroys his cap hangs the remnants on the end of his rifle and leads the parade back into town, this is apparently usually Tartarin. The consequence of this cap shooting makes the most profitable shop in town the hat shop.

Tartarin is, or believes he is, the greatest at all things in the town and as can be seen in the picture above lives surrounded by weaponry of all sorts. He is also convinced that there are secret assassins everywhere and always goes out armed and take circuitous routes to the club in the evening to shake them off. There are other apparent peculiarities regarding the residents of Tarascon such as each family having their own song which they sing each evening and it is unheard of for any other family to sing any others song at any time, apart that is for Tartarin who will join in with all the others at the drop of a hat, or probably the remains of one. The trigger for the plot of the novel is the arrival of a circus with a lion, here at last was an animal worthy of hunting and Tartarin declares in his usual boastful way that he will go to Africa on behalf of the town to hunt.

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So far so good, a short comic novel about a real town that Daudet has populated with ridiculous characters doing ridiculous things and initially it appears that the trip to Algeria that Tartarin is eventually shamed into doing after spending months hoping that his boast will be forgotten will be a satire of French colonial attitudes in that country, which it is, but only occasionally. The illustration above shows Tartarin in the outfit he chose for the journey, a very much stereotypical ‘Turk’ costume which he believes would be what everyone in Algeria would be wearing only to be very surprised when he is the only one. But this is where the book starts to fall apart, the clothing choice is clearly a dig at parochial attitudes in provincial France but once the action is in Algeria Daudet allows his racist and specifically anti-Semitic beliefs to come through although also makes comments regarding the colonial status quo. There are several derogatory statements about Jews the milder of which I can repeat below as it illustrates my earlier statement, others I wouldn’t include

Just ask the Arabs. Hark to how they explain the French colonial organisation. ‘On the top,’ they say, ‘is Mossoo, the Governor, with a heavy club to rap the staff; the staff, for revenge, canes the soldier; the soldier clubs the settler, and he hammers the Arab; the Arab smites the Negro, the Negro beats the Jew, and he takes it out of the donkey. The poor bourriquot having nobody to belabour, arches up his back and bears it all.’

Another comment about the Algerians which is also a valid point on colonialism is

A wild and corrupted people whom we are civilising by teaching them our vices

There is also the issue of Tartarin himself, surely nobody could be that naive as he falls for all the cons perpetrated on him but also just where did he get all his money? He is in Algeria for at least four months and is conned out of a significant amount of money on top of the huge amount spent before he leaves France on guns and equipment, but at the end of the book still has

his pocket-book, a good-sized one, full of precious papers and bank-notes

well until it finally gets stolen anyway. He just isn’t believable.

In summary I started off enjoying the story but gradually got more irritated by it and reading got slower as I progressed. If I wasn’t going to write about the novel I would probably have given up before the end.

A Valley in Italy – Lisa St Aubin de Teran

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Subtitled ‘Confessions of a House Addict’ the book more than lives up to that description. St Aubin de Teran is a novelist and I have several of her books although I am mainly drawn to her autobiographical work documenting her increasingly complicated life as she bounces from country to country. She was born in London, but when she had just turned sixteen married a much older Venezuelan sugar plantation owner and bank robber, hence her surname. Eventually she moved to that country at the age of seventeen and ran his estate over the next seven years. It was here that she had her daughter Iseult, known throughout this book as ‘the child Isuelt’ or more simply ‘the child’ despite there also being a younger brother (by her second husband) who is normally just referred to as Allie. By 1989 when this book is set Iseult was now fifteen and just as confident and precocious as her mother had been at the same age, having already been employed as a model in Paris. As for Lisa she was married to her third husband, the artist Robbie Duff Scott and they were looking for a new home in Italy, preferably large and rambling, however bearing in mind the state of their finances it also had to be pretty dilapidated.

I saw the house I had been looking for all my life. It was standing like a jilted beauty still dressed in its ancient best. The abandoned facade was groaning under tons of sculpted terracotta. There was row upon row of long graceful windows reaching down to white marble sills, there were dozens of arches, a loggia, a roof, a balcony and a cascade of wisteria.

I gleaned these impressions through my first glances. Then, though I subsequently climbed through one of the missing windows and roamed around for nearly an hour, I was so entranced that I saw little else that I could remember with any clarity. There was a white marble staircase stretching up with cantilevered vertigo through four floors with neither balustrade nor banister against the sheer drop. There was a white marble fireplace some ten feet high in a blackened kitchen. There were two tractors, a combine harvester and a transport van all rusting in the downstairs hall.

And so the description goes on, almost all the doors were missing as well as the windows, a large part of the roof and indeed most of an exterior wall. They agreed to buy it straight away and only when then had driven away realised that they didn’t actually know where it was as the agent had taken them there as a second choice so they had no documents to tell them anything about it.

It was agreed that Lisa and the child would go to the house to supervise getting the restoration started, Robbie had to go back to Scotland to look after his terminally ill father and Allie would finish that years schooling from their apartment in Venice in the care of ‘the beauties’ two statuesque young Irish women who were employed as nannies. On arrival at the ruined building where they were going to camp as none of the rooms were actually habitable Lisa discovered that despite her careful packing of kitchen utensils, tools, coats, torches and camping equipment the child had simply replaced everything before they left with items a teenage girl deemed essential, that is lots of her impractical clothes, shoes and gallons of make-up and face-packs. As you can imagine their discovery at the house the next morning by the builder and his team they were employing to restore the villa was a real surprise to the men and it took some time to convince them that they really were the new owners. This set the tone of eccentricity the family gained in the village which was only increased by the eventual arrival of Allie and the beauties but still no man of the household which was unheard of in central Italy.

The book is extremely funny, not only in it’s description of the chaotic rebuilding of the villa over the following year but also in the way they all eventually become accepted in the village and the tales of how they got to know their neighbours. The children led the way into the hearts of the people, Iseult had a trail of admirers almost from first arriving and Allie was soon adored by the families. The beauties (we never do learn their names) also had a string of admirers not only from their looks and height (both over 6 feet tall) but also from the fact that only one of the men in the entire village could beat them at arm wrestling! Eventually Robbie arrived and they became a respectable family unit at last and what could have been just another rebuild a ruin book morphs into a charming story about life in an Umbrian village. I heartily recommend it as a great introduction to the works of Lisa St Aubin de Teran and if you do read and enjoy it I suggest Off the Rails which was written earlier as the next one to try. I will at some point reread The Hacienda which is the story of her seven traumatic years in Venezuela, maybe a project for a years time as a follow up to this blog.

Rescuing the Spectacled Bear – Stephen Fry

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This book was written as a diary during the filming of ‘Stephen Fry and the Spectacled Bear’ which itself was a follow up to an earlier documentary entitled ‘Paddington Bear: The Early Years’. That documentary gives a clue as to how Stephen Fry became involved in a project to highlight the problems the Spectacled Bear has in the wild. The much loved children’s book character Paddington famously came from Peru, but were there really bears in Peru? It turns out that yes there are but the question should have been, for how much longer will there be bears in Peru? So from 11th January to 5th February 2002, Fry and a team from OR Media went back to make a film about saving a couple of captive bears from appalling conditions in a tiny private zoo attached to a cafe along with two more from a zoo in Chile and also to try to film more bears in the wild. Well that was the plan anyway…

Things start to go wrong from the start due to the endemic corruption in Peru, Lima zoo had agreed several months ago to put the bears up for a few days before they were to be transported to their eventual home (see below), suddenly they stated that they had nowhere to put them and needed $4,000 to build a a cage from scratch. This is apparently a fairly normal shakedown, wait until it is impossible for the plans to be changed and then demand money which of course isn’t to build a cage but to line the pockets of the minor official who had thought of this wheeze. Fortunately part of the team was an ex Peruvian diplomat who could deal directly with the minister in charge to get this one sorted out. The people at the national park where they were going to film bears in the wild also suddenly demanded $6,000 to allow the filming; but they weren’t expecting the crew to simply say that alright then we’ll do something else. Other sums did have to be paid to at least get something for the documentary but filming bears in the wild was dropped.

The book is sad, when dealing with the plight of the bears, and you get as fed up as Stephen does with the overwhelming corruption which is determined to make achieving much to help them as difficult as possible. However there are also passages that are extremely funny, my favourite of these concerns him trying to get to sleep whilst staying at a jungle lodge, so well out of his comfort zone in more ways that one, where the noises get louder and odder as the night progresses starting with.

A moth about the size and weight of the Penguin Classics edition of Don Quixote flapped in and started circling the tilley lamp. First mistake. Swearing lightly, I pushed myself out of the netting and took the lamp out onto the porch. Creatures of the night being dark and stupid, are attracted to the light. THEN WHY THE HELL DON’T THEY COME OUT DURING THE DAY?

The photography, by Rob Fraser is superb and does full justice to this spectacular country and the amazing diversity of landscapes that it contains from jungle rivers to Andean peaks via deserts and highland forests. It is also home to a vast selection of animals including ten percent of all known bird species. If the documentary and this book can do anything to hell protect some of them then Stephen Fry’s month in the country will have been worthwhile. All his proceeds from the book are donated to the Bear Rescue Foundation.

In 2008 the team went back to Peru, only this time minus Stephen, to do a follow up documentary entitled ‘Spectacled Bears: Shadows of the Forest’ for which Stephen provided narration. You can see the reserve near Machu Picchu where the bears they rescued ended up in the video linked below, although it was a lot more basic back in 2002.

National Geographic video of Inkaterra Andean bear Sanctuary

At the time I wrote this the follow up documentary can be seen via the link below, but presumably it may get deleted due to copyright at some point. I cannot find an example of the original films.

Spectacled Bears: Shadows of the Forest