My thanks to Harper Collins UK and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.
Agatha Christie being one of my favourite authors, when I got this one from NetGalley, I couldn’t help but bump it up on my TBR pile!
Midsummer Mysteries: Secrets and Suspense from the Queen of Crime is a collection of twelves short stories by Christie with a summer theme. The book covers a range of crime and suspense—from murder to theft, kidnapping to mysterious disappearances, matters of the heart to matters of state. Across the stories, we ‘meet’ all of Christie’s detectives Miss Marple (2 stories), Poirot (4 stories), Parker Pyne (2 stories), Harley Quin (1 story), Tommy and Tuppence (1 story) and we also have a couple of standalones, in which none of the detectives appear. The stories take us to England (of course)—but also to more exotic locales—Greece and Egypt. (For me, about half the stories were new, others I had read before.)
Almost all the stories give us a summer ‘feel’—with beaches and bathing, cruises and holiday trips, visits down to the country, and also a distinct midsummer madness that afflicts some of the characters or at least stands out in the atmosphere in some of our stories. In one or two of the stories, though, I felt the summeriness didn’t come through as strongly but that is a minor complaint.
Now for the stories themselves; we start off with a Marple story (from The Thirteen Problems), ‘The Blood Stained Pavement’ in which Joyce Lempriere, an artist, is recounting an interesting incident (involving a mysterious death of course) she witnessed when out on a sketching expedition in Cornwall—involving a young couple and another woman, the husband’s old friend. None of the party hearing Joyce’s tale, including former police commissioner Sir Henry Clithering can point to the solution but Miss Marple does, of course—relying once again on her observations of village life and human nature. This story is a prototype for one full-length Christie book, and also another short story but both with their own twists. All three renditions are very enjoyable.
Next in ‘The Double Clue’, Poirot is called in to make discreet inquiries into the theft of some priceless jewels at the home of Mr Hardman who had invited a few guests over to show them off; the clues seem to point to one person in particular, but did that person really do it?
‘Death on the Nile’, a story that shares its name with a full length Poirot novel, takes us on a Nile cruise where a domineering and dictatorial rich lady is travelling with her titled husband, her companion, niece, and husband’s secretary. Also on the boat is Parker Pyne, whom she is determined to get rid of for she wants the boat entirely to herself. So we are a little surprised when she consults Mr Pyne as to a possible attempt on her life. Everyone around her resents her, but who does so that much?
On completely different lines, and involving matters of the heart and some of that midsummer madness (also a Harlequin performance) is ‘Harlequin’s Lane’. Here we find Mr Satterthwaite (who regularly appears in the Harley Quin stories and also in one Poirot book, Three Act Tragedy) paying a visit down in the country to the Denmans with whom he has almost nothing in common. But what fascinates him is Mrs Denman’s sitting room, a plain and almost impersonal space but for a Chinese lacquer screen. At their home he runs into the mysterious Mr Quin, also a guest. This story, as is the case with many of the Harley Quin stories, has a very dreamy and otherworldly feeling about it, and its ending is somewhat unsettling as well.
Poirot is asked by Dr Hawker, a neighbour, to accompany him, when one of his patients, an Italian count leaves a message calling for help. The count is found dead, and the guests who had been dining with him (and with whom he was overheard speaking in a raised voice) are missing; but is the mystery as clear-cut as it seems?
‘Jane in Search of a Job’ sees Jane Cleveland, a young woman in search of a job, respond to and take up a position pursuant to a rather strange advertisement. This throws her in the midst of an adventure but not quite the kind she was expecting. This one had definite shades of Sherlock Holmes (the red-headed league/copper beeches stories), but of course Christie gives it her own touch.
In ‘The Disappearnce of Mr Davenheim’ a wealthy banker disappears from his country home, and no trace is found. Just at the time, he had an appointment with someone who had borne him a grudge. Poirot of course finds once again that the matter is not as simple as it may seem. Another story with a Holmesian touch.
We meet Miss Marple again in ‘The Idol House of Astarte’, another of the stories that involves an element of otherworldliness and midsummer madness, but one which turns out very much to be of this world in its solution. Another of the thirteen problems, this one is narrated by the clergyman Dr Pender, and involves a mysterious death that takes place near a statute of Astarte, the old Phoenician deity, a place which to Dr Pender had a distinct feeling of evil. But whether it was evil in the place or in the heart of the culprit, we can’t really say, for Miss Marple once again finds the answer, which as I said lies very much in the human realm.
In ‘The Rajah’s Emerald’ we meet James Bond, no, not 007 (the publication date (1934) is earlier than the first Bond story by Fleming (1953), so probably just a coincidence). James is down on a beach holiday as is also the girl he is in love with. But Grace is staying with wealthier friends in a posh hotel while James is in a boarding house having to deal with crowds and long queues for everything. When James decides to take a step not quite in his usual character (nothing horrifying, just a way to not have to deal with the queues), he finds himself in an adventure! (I loved the ending of this one!)
‘The Oracle at Delphi’ finds a comfort-loving American lady, Mrs Willard Peters on holiday in Greece with her culture loving son. But when Willard junior is kidnapped on one of his expeditions, she turns to Parker Pyne for help.
Tommy and Tuppence appear in their ‘spy’ avatar in ‘The Adventure of the Sinister Stranger’ when a stranger comes into their inquiry agency with a rather obviously cooked up mystery for them to solve. But do they manage to trap him?
Finally, we are back with Poirot in ‘The Incredible Theft’, a story which is a version of ‘The Naval Treaty’ but with its own spin. A house party is to be a cover for discussions on matters of national security between Lord Mayfield and Sir George Carrington. Mrs Vanderlyn, a wealthy lady, known to have dubious connections, is also present. Stolen of course, are important military plans, disappearing from the table they had been placed on when Lord Mayfield’s secretary is forced to leave the study for just a few moments. Did Mrs Vanderlyn get the papers? How?
This was an enjoyable collection of Christie stories, which I think would appeal to both regular readers and fans as well as people new to Christie. We get a flavour of the range of plots she comes up with, meet all of her detectives, and also get a taste of the unexpected twists in the puzzles she creates. While being short stories, these don’t have the level of complexity that her full length books have, each story has a twist and solution that one certainly doesn’t see coming. A very entertaining and engaging collection, with many surprises woven in. 4.5 stars
p.s. The opening extract from Christie’s own childhood holiday in the Pyrenees recalls an unsettling incident which also shows why she was perhaps so much attached to her mother.
p.p.s: I loved the cover as well!