Tag Archives: Alfred

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Mysterious Affair at StylesMy second Agatha Christie.  I had a yen to read her again, because the books are quick and easy, like junk food.  Being written in the ’20s means they have a bit more sophistication than your average Stephen King novel, but in truth they are the same level of book.  Enjoyable, quick, but not life-changing.

This book was no exception.  It was engaging, unpretentious, and a pleasure to read.  That being said, I must start out my review by pointing out that Mr. Hastings, the narrator of this story, is the dumbest character I have ever had to read about.  What a clueless bland bag of flour.  And this guy apparently appears in 8 other Poirot stories?  I could barely deal with him once.  Agatha, I know you’re dead, and have no reason to change your books now, but I need to give you some advice.  You do not need to make a dunce accompany Poirot in order for us to see that he is intelligent. I know Watson isn’t as brilliant as Holmes, but he’s (in the books anyway) of average, if not slightly above average, intelligence).  Hastings, on the other hand, is one step above lake algae.

Hastings is like the fat friend who makes the other girls look thinner and prettier. I am not exaggerating; I think he has an IQ below 80.  Not only is he dumb compared to Poirot, he is dumb compared to every other character in the book. If Hastings is supposed to represent the ‘reader’ as we bumble along through the mystery, then Christie thought her readers were utter imbeciles.  I recently found a website titled ‘Shut the Fuck Up, Hastings!’ so I know I’m not alone in my irritation. But I’ve now said my piece, and can move on.

This book was Christie’s first published novel, and is also the first glance her readers got of Poirot, the odd Belgian detective who would feature in some of her biggest hits, like Murder on the Orient Express.  Hercule Poirot, Arthur Hastings, and DI Japp (apparently) all make many appearances in later novels.  Christie admitted that she based this trio on the Holmes-Watson-Lestrade relationship, and it shows.  Poirot is no Holmes, though.  He’s a short, older foppy gentleman with slight OCD and a paunchy belly. No girl is going to have a crush on Poirot, that’s for sure.

The book opens with the dimwitted Hastings home from WWI and visiting friends at Styles.  There’s his old friend John Cavendish, and his aloof and beautiful wife Mary.  The matriarch, Emily Inglethorp and her (new) second husband, Alfred. The younger brother Lawrence, the ‘ward’ Cynthia, and the secretary Evelyn. The poison expert, Dr. Bauerstein.

Within a few days, the matriarch of the household has been poisoned, and everyone suspects her new second husband.  This being a murder mystery, the action obviously does not end there. Poirot gets involved to help determine who committed the murder and how.  Was she murdered via the coffee? Her nightly cocoa?  The sleeping powders?  Who burned her newly-written will?

I thought it was a good mystery, and though not as smart as Poirot, I’m nowhere near as dumb as Hastings.  So I saw some of the twists coming beforehand, but didn’t anticipate the denouement.  I think that’s about the perfect experience for a murder mystery.  You feel smart enough since you saw some of the clues and drew correct conclusions, but you’re still surprised in the end.

I found this book, despite the lovely mystery, to be lacking in characterization.  I could see glimmerings of the truth about Mary Cavendish (who looked like Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary in my imagination) and Cynthia. I could picture the moody Lawrence or the no-nonsense Evelyn.  I could see a love story brewing here and there, but it was like looking through the haze. Hastings was stupid and dull, but as the narrator we see most of the action through his eyes.  It’s a bit like swimming through jello, trying to glean any information from his incompetent retelling. As such, I felt a bit impatient for the plot to zoom along, since characters alone were not sufficient to make this book worthwhile.

So I didn’t love it–characters are really important.  But I still enjoyed it, because Christie is really good at this murder mystery stuff.  I think next time, I just need to go for one of the stories without Hastings in it.

My previous foray into the works of Christie was soured by a lot of antisemitism.  I’m pleased that this book had…less.  A few unsavory mentions of so and so being ‘a Jew’, as if it were an insult.  A really and truly unfortunate tale of one of the people dressing up in blackface, using burned corks to color her hair dark, in order to put on what must have been an incredibly appalling skit. It’s a thin line when you read old fiction.  Shakespeare has a lot of mentions about jewish people, about black people (more than you would think anyway, given that it was the 16th century in England) and they can make a reasonable 21st century person feel a bit uncomfortable.  On the other hand, Shakespeare wrote Othello and The Merchant of Venice.  Christie’s tidbits of casual and horrifying racism/antisemitism are far more disturbing in their thoughtless inclusion where they are not needed.  They come from a place of undeniable privilege and ignorance, and betray a nonchalance that makes me a little sick.  A Telegraph article about Christie’s antisemitism had this quote: The stereotyping made me squirm. But would I erase it? Never: to see antisemitism so endemic in the works of a highly-respected and best-selling author is to understand a period of history – and its horrific consequences.

Like taking medicine, it’s important to look back and to be horrified. That’s the only way to avoid doing horrifying things again.  And judging by the comments from incensed Christie fans claiming there’s nothing antisemitic about her works, I’m guessing this sentiment is warranted.

But that article also compares Christie’s casual antisemitism to Mark Twain’s very purposeful discussion of the black experience in America during a time of slavery and abject destitution.  They are not the same.  Christie is not interested in examining these prejudices, any more than Jane Austen was interested in the plight of the lady’s maid. Her prejudices are just there, making it obvious that she thought them nothing to be ashamed of.  So my feelings of guilt at reading and enjoying Christie’s books continue.  But she seemed so nice in that Doctor Who episode…and there’s that picture of her surfing!  Disappointing.

agathachristiesurfing

 

Downton Abbey, Season Three

Since this season doesn’t air in the US until January, please consider everything I say in this post to be hearsay and thoughts gleaned and paraphrased from others who watched the show in a totally legal fashion.

First, I’m going to start out with a few things that are non-spoilers:

Primarily, I must say that the season started out rather weak. Perhaps my expectations of Shirley MacLaine were too high? Her character was sort of flat and one-dimensional, as far as I’m concerned.  The first 2-3 episodes were very disappointing, and I was really worried they were indicative of the series as a whole. But then it turned around. Episode 3 (I think it was) was the best episode they’ve had in a long time, and the rest of the season was full of good moments, great stuff from the Dowager Countess, and some scenes that made me weep.  I thought it was a really strong end to the season, and almost met the quality of season 1. It definitely surpassed the second season, in my opinion.

Okay, from here on out, there be spoilers:
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This is me politely allowing a gap between non-spoilery and spoilery content.

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Okay, to business!

As I said above, I thought episodes 1 and 2 were pretty dreadful. The will-they-wont-they-of-course-they-will rubbish with Mary and Matthew pre-wedding was a huge snooze.  Of course they will! Before I even realized I was supposed to be worked up about it, they were already married.  They’ve ceased being interesting and are now just tiresome.

I think sometimes my annoyance with the show is that they drag on issues that have no inherent tension, and the really tense moments are generally over in one episodes’ time.  There’s a terrible sense of pacing.

The money storyline is a good example of this. It was tedious; it was also the only thing that encompassed every episode of the season.  Other issues came and went, but the money was the big one.  Can I say I totally agree with Cora’s mom that enough money from that family has already been wasted by Lord Grantham?  And what is his brilliant plan for the place? To call that American, Charles Ponzi, who can guarantee a big return in a few weeks’ time.  So he’s a real genius when it comes to finance, but he attacks everyone who tries to help or suggest change because he is so insecure about it.  It drove me crazy.  I find that Lady Grantham (the dowager countess, that is) is much better at embracing change than Lord Grantham, which is ludicrous.  And poor Matthew, who was hoping to downsize and lead a simpler life after his marriage (man did he marry the wrong girl for that) instead ends up running the huge Downton estate.

I know that Downton is necessary for the show but that doesn’t mean I agree that it should stay as it is. Were I alive at the time, I would have thought it better to embrace the times and get out of the agricultural money-owning ways of the 19th century and into a more modern frame of mind. Just because the incredible good luck of the Grantham family has allowed them to live like kings for 100s of years does not mean the world owes them. The world does not give out alimony, and current prosperity is no guarantee of the same in future.

So the money situation made me totally uninterested, despite Lord Grantham’s blustering.  But the big, game changing issue of the season–Sybil and Tom.

Can I describe how much I cried? Sybil was the only one of those three sisters I didn’t loathe. I adored her, in fact, whereas Mary is entertaining for her bitchiness and Edith is boring as always (in my opinion) So I was none-too-pleased with this turn, though I am happy Tom will be staying at Downton.  I love Tom.

I had a love-hate relationship with a lot of this season.  The characters enchanted, then disappointed me in turn.  Carson was adorable when concerned about Mrs. Hughes, but repugnant in his later dealings with Thomas (I don’t care if it is accurate to the period, it’s awful. I can’t take my modern sensibilities out of the equation, and I hated listening to it). Alfred was bungling and charming at first, and then nauseating in the final few episodes (mostly due to his dealings with Thomas). Edith won my pity at her not-wedding, my affection when she decided to write the newspaper column against her father’s and grandmother’s advice, and then my irritation again by the end of the series.  After all, she spent a few episodes last season snogging a married farmer, so how is she repulsed by some casual flirting by a married editor? Pot, kettle, etc.

The problem with Fellowes’ characters is they are all drawn black or white.  Sometimes they will slide toward the middle, but most of the time they exist on the edges.  I don’t mean necessarily their moral leanings, because Bates, for example, lives very much in the gray.  It’s more that what we are supposed to feel for them is very black and white.  We are supposed to hate O’Brien in this season, and pity Thomas.  Last season it was the opposite.  I feel weirdly abused by this all-or-nothing evil always resonating from one or the other.  Matthew is always valorous and honorable. Edith is always going to suffer from middle-child syndrome.

There’s a difference between creating characters that can be comprehended as fitting into a recognizable personality type and writing characters that are the trope. It makes their behavior predictable, and that makes me bored.

What I do think is interesting about Fellowes’ writing is that the most compelling characters are usually on the periphery of the plot line.  Some examples: Thomas’ reaction to Lady Sybil’s death. Carson’s fears over Mrs. Hughes’ health. The Downton ladies refusing to leave Violet’s brunch after Robert storms in.  I think one of the advantages of this era, and the upstairs, downstairs mentality of this era is that there are always people adjacent to the story.  There are just so many people involved when you have family and staff living in one house.  This provides lots of opportunities for people to overhear and to discover what they shouldn’t know.  Add to this the fact that it was a very private time in an already reserved society. Secrets were important and hard to keep.  There are a lot of instances where this is taken advantage of in Downton Abbey and I think those are the instances where the show is the most affective.

One final note.  That young girl in the final episode was boring and her running off was completely and utterly predictable.  It ruined the final episode and I pray that they never have her on again.  On the other hand, I truly enjoyed the Dowager Countess’ uncanny ability to trick absolutely everyone into telling the truth.  For that only, it was worth it to have her on. But please, don’t bring her back!