Guy Fawkes Day Read: Murder in the Mews by Agatha Christie

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Guy Fawkes

Image Source: George Cruikshank [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Its the 5th of November, and  while I am in the middle of a couple of other books, I decided to stop and pick up a read that has a Guy Fawkes theme, since I have been planning to for years, but never seem to get down to it on time. I don’t really know very much fiction (yet) that is set around the gunpowder plot or Guy Fawkes in some way. There is of course the recently released Fawkes by Nadine Brandes (on goodreads here), which is definitely set around the gunpowder plot (I don’t have a copy of that one), and The House of Arden by Edith Nesbit (on goodreads here) where the children in the story find themselves travelling in time to and mixed up in Guy Fawkes’ plot, as a result of their knowledge of history. But I also did want a short read since I am already reading other books. So I picked a quick read, a short (ish) story by Agatha Christie, titled “Murder in the Mews”, part of her book also called Murder in the Mews, which features four Poirot stories.

 

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‘Murder in the Mews’ the first story, opens on Guy Fawkes night, where Chief Inspector Japp and Hercule Poirot have just dined together and are walking back to Poirot’s flat. There is a band of urchins begging for money, and also reciting the Guy Fawkes poem, ‘Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November…’ There are of course, also fireworks, the sounds of squibs and ‘occasional showers of golden rain’.

 

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Mercy Park Fireworks Display

Image source: By Rept0n1x [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Japp remarks to Poirot that this would be a perfect night for a murder for the sound of a shot would go unheard in all that noise, and Poirot agrees, the discussion then turning to how it would be if Poirot were to commit a murder. The next morning Japp telephones Poirot to tell him that a suspicious death has in fact taken place in Bardsley Gardens Mews, the very area they were walking through the previous night, and it seems as though someone has indeed taken advantage of the celebrations.

The victim is a young widow, Mrs Allen who shares a flat with her friend Jane Plenderleith, who was away on the night in question. On first glance, it seems a case of suicide, for the doors and windows are locked and the gun is in Mrs Allen’s hand. But Barbara Allen was engaged to an up-and-coming Member of Parliament, was well-liked by all, and was leading an otherwise innocuous existence. There seems no reason why she should commit suicide. When Poirot and Japp begin to look closer at the circumstances around the incident, they find more than what first meets the eye. Barbara Allen may well have been murdered, and the crime simply made to look like suicide.

The first chapter is really the only section of this story that focuses on Guy Fawkes night, while the rest is Japp and Poirot investigating the case, interviewing various people who may have seen something, people connected with the victim, and also her flatmate who seems to know more than she lets on. Sherlock Holmes and the ‘curious incident of the dog in the nighttime’ are also referenced and point to an important clue.

This was an enjoyable mystery. Since it was a reread, I knew the solution of course, but the first time around, I really didn’t guess what had happened, and who the killer could have been (more so really, the why). At a little under 100 pages in the edition I read it in, this was also a very quick read, and seemed a nice fit even though the 5th of November was only a small part of the story.

Have you read this one before? What did you think of it? And what about other books (fiction or non-fiction) which have Guy Fawkes or the 5th of November as their theme? Any recommendations? Looking forward to hearing about them

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Winter in Verse

Before I even start, I’d like to say that I’m not so much a poetry person―don’t read much of it, have written just one for school, so any comments or observations of mine are pretty much those of a layperson―and pretty literal. That said though, I have been trying time and again to read a few poems, but don’t end up doing this regularly.

Anyway, now on to what I actually want to write about―winter―or more specifically three poems on winter that I read which paint pictures of very different facets of the season, positive and negative, how it impacts nature and people’s lives. Winter by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, for instance describes the effect frost has on both people and nature. The first stanza suggests it is written sometime at the beginning of the new year since the frost has “bitten the heel of the year gone by”. From people’s point of view it means fires burning, the wood becoming more withered, and fuel dear. And in nature, so many creatures have vanished from sight, the frost having “rolled [them] up away”―the plump dormouse, probably hibernating, the bees being stilled, and flies dying. However while the frost may have bitten into a lot of things, “into the heart of the house”, “into the heart of the earth”, the poet doesn’t allow it to bite into his own heart―not letting the chill affect him, and in the final stanza is optimistic about spring being nearer, even as the woods are “searer”, fuel “dearer”, and fires burn “clearer”. While Tennyson is certainly writing about the cold, dreary atmosphere outside (and indoors as well) causing all “life” to disappear and people to stick closer to their fires, his own attitude is optimistic, his own heart warm and happy for he doesn’t allow it to affect him, and looks optimistically on at the coming spring (this part reflecting perhaps a later time in winter).

Cold and near-isolation outdoors, and warm and welcoming hearths are pictures painted by T.S. Eliot’s “The winter evening settles down”, the first of the preludes (though the book I read it in had it as a separate poem). Here Eliot describes the end of a cold winter day―six o’clock―when most people are presumably back home. He writes not only of sights but of the sounds and smells of a winter evening. He doesn’t really take us into the house but outside in passageways are the smells of steaks, which in itself for me conjured up pictures of people sitting by their firesides, warm, away from the weather outside, enjoying their steaks. Outdoors though (this one is of course in a town/village), is a very different story―withered leaves under one’s feet, perhaps fluttering as a gusty shower throws them up, as it does newspapers lying about, while the showers beat against “broken-blinds and chimney pots” adding to the already dreary and somewhat isolated atmosphere. The only beings that seem to be outdoors braving the weather are the “lonely cab horse” who “steams and stamps”, and perhaps the lamplighter for there is the “lighting of the lamps”.

While Eliot and Tennyson write of the chilly winter atmosphere and frost “biting” into homes and into the earth, the third poem I read “Frost” by L.M. Dufty (interestingly while I have this poem in the book, the poem nor the poet seem to appear in any internet searches―the only result that I got was Silver Bells, the book I read it from) which focuses not on the chill the frost brings with it but the very pretty picture that frost creates when it comes. Frost for Dufty is a “busy sprite” who leaves the meadows all “sparkling and clean” and fashions “fringes of silver” for the grey wintery grasses which so far looked soiled and dim. Frost may make places icy, but for the poet, he has actually changed muddy hollows and cart-ruts into a diamond floor. His final stanza describing what the frost does to windows is the prettiest:

“And windows are studded
With drawings like dreams
Of fragile white forests
And towers and streams.”

So a much more positive and certainly aesthetically appealing picture of the chilling Mr Frost! (I love the accompanying illustration in the book―wish I could have shared it here).

So winter may be chilling and grey, cold and dreary, a time when nature goes to sleep or into hiding (when Persephone goes to Hades), yet one can find comfort in the fact that there are warm firesides to sit by, and hot meals to eat (for those of us lucky enough to have them), and certainly beautiful pictures to see, clean, sparkly surrounds, fringed with white which frost has painted for us. And then again, as Tennyson tells us, even if the frost has chosen to bite into everything, into nature, and our surrounds, our hearts can always remain happy and warm, and choose not to let Mr Frost chill them too.