Boundless Books: The Mysterious Affair at Styles in stylish, artsy microprint!

While on vacation this past week, my husband and I stopped at a Chapters bookstore to browse. A funny-looking book with an attached “magnifying glass” caught our attention. The title is Boundless Books: Fifty Literary Classics Transformed into Works of Art. According to the description on the website (where, by the way, you can order it for $53 CAD)…

“In this book, a picture is indeed worth a thousand words. Within its covers are 50 literary classics, deconstructed and then put back together word by word to create singularly beautiful pieces of art. The silhouettes that emerge from the text illustrate the central characters, landscapes, and themes of each story. This collection ranges across the canon, from 620 BCE to 1937. Bibliophiles will find many of their favorite reads as well as lesser-known gems to discover or rediscover. Each piece of art contains an entire text in legible type, so that, with the help of the magnifying glass on a ribbon marker, readers can enjoy both the striking images and the timeless words themselves.”

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My husband and I love books (especially old books), art, and typography, so this really caught our eye. But there’s something else– one of the books in the collection is The Mysterious Affair at Styles!!!

I can’t reproduce an image, but the graphic for this Christie novel is a two-page spread in which the negative space depicts an overturned poison bottle and a number of images of chemical compounds. I took a peek at it through the magnifier, and sure enough, Mary Cavendish’s stricken face from Poirot’s denouement floated before my eyes.  🙂  Note: if you’re interested in taking a closer look at the text, I’d recommend a somewhat stronger magnifier of your own– the text is really VERY tiny! But how awesome to read Christie’s first novel through a magnifying glass!

This book is on our wish list now.  🙂

So The Big Four *is* a graphic novel. C’est curieux!

Not very long ago, I suggested that if the Agatha Christie estate would release The Big Four as a graphic novel, they could have all my money.

Well, it turns out that this book was in fact made into a graphic novel (as were other Christie stories). So, true to my word, I promptly disposed of the bulk of my earthly lucre, that is to say about ten dollars, and ordered it. I’ll probably receive it in a few weeks.

But I’m suspicious.

The cover– hardcover!– looks pretty promising. Nice “number 4” shadow, mysterious silhouette, and creepy dragon emblem.

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But the back cover– the back cover seriously alarmed me. The graphics were all right. The chess pieces, with the prominent bishop, are perfectly appropriate. But do you see what troubles me? Click on the photo so you can zoom and read the synopsis in the green bishop.

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Yeah, pretty much nothing in that synopsis is actually true.

***Spoilers for The Big Four ahead***

I’d hardly describe Captain Hastings as being particularly drawn to the quiet life– even at his times of greatest peace and quiet, he’s only too eager to be distracted by the action of an exciting criminal investigation, the more dangerous the better. And who exactly are these strangers who shuffle Poirot off on “round-the-world trips” to defeat criminal masterminds with exotic code names? He voluntarily makes a few brief jaunts  to France, Belgium, and Italy, and never takes his dreaded sea journey to South America. And Achille Poirot never announces to Hastings that Poirot is dead; Achille doesn’t “show up” until well after Hastings is assured that Poirot was alive. I wouldn’t call The Big Four one of Christie’s most “ambitious books”– although I’m very fond of it myself, it has plenty of uncharacteristic notes, jumbly confusion, and an overall negative reputation as her books go. I believe that Christie herself hated it. The only thing here I’d really agree with is that being a (sort of) international spy thriller, it is ideally suited to be turned into a graphic novel.

The synopsis makes one wonder: is this graphic novel just a sort of loose adaptation of the book? Or is it just a weirdly bad synopsis that we should ignore? When I get my hands on my copy, I’ll be sure to post a review here… stay tuned!  🙂

The best endings to Poirot stories: My top 12

Here I shall opine on a list of the best endings of Christie’s Poirot stories, both novels and short stories. (For the purposes of this exercise, I will count The Labours of Hercules and The Big Four as collections of short stories, which they essentially are.) By best endings, I don’t necessarily mean best ultimate plot twists or best solutions. I mean that, after all is said and done, the actual last few words of text themselves strike amazement into the heart and leave me, the reader, in just the right place. For the purposes of this post, the funniest endings are not included– that’s another category altogether. If you haven’t read some of these, you should be warned of SPOILERS, because I will spoil BLATANTLY, and quote, and explain. My comments will be in italics. Here goes, in no particular order!

1.    Dead Man’s Folly

Then Mrs. Folliat of Nasse House, daughter of a long line of brave men, drew herself erect. She looked straight at Poirot and her voice was formal and remote.

‘Thank you, M. Poirot,’ she said, ‘for coming to tell me yourself of this. Will you leave me now? There are some things that one has to face quite alone…’

Certainly one of the most enigmatic and fascinating of Christie’s endings, we are left not knowing what action Mrs. Folliat is going to take when Poirot reveals to her that he knows the truth about her son. The reader may assume that she has something like suicide, or a double suicide, in mind. This is the interpretation used by the writers of the 2013 television episode. Christie frequently enjoys using elipses or a dash to leave the very last words hanging.

2.    “The Lemesurier Inheritance”

‘You have disposed very successfully of the curse of the Lemesuriers.’

‘I wonder,’ said Poirot very thoughtfully. ‘I wonder very much indeed.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Mon ami, I will answer you with one significant word– red!’

‘Blood?’ I queried, dropping my voice to an awe-stricken whisper.

‘Always you have the imagination melodramatic, Hastings! I refer to something much more prosaic– the colour of little Ronald Lemesurier’s hair.’

What Poirot is getting at– though it is not explicitly spelled out for Hastings or the reader– is that although Ronald, the elder of the two boys, has inherited the estate and therefore the “curse of the firstborn” appears to be broken, it may be that the curse continues after all. Ronald’s auburn hair suggests that he might actually be the son of the secretary, and not of Hugo Lemesurier at all! So Gerald is actually the true firstborn; as the firstborn, he did not inherit, in keeping with the curse; and Hugo had been trying to kill the wrong son! Despite Poirot’s words about his observation being “prosaic,” his ending sends a chill to my heart every time I read it. It puts an entirely different complexion on the events that have passed.

3.    “Problem at Sea”

‘It was a trick– a cruel trick,’ cried out Ellie.

‘I do not approve of murder,’ said Hercule Poirot.

The ending of this short story is so shocking that it was altered for the sake of the television series, although this text remains essentially the same. In the book, Poirot knows the murderer has a weak heart, and deliberately seeks to shock him to death by means of a particularly stunning denouement. In other words, Poirot basically murders the guy. He does so thinking that it is the best and most merciful way for all involved, but he still deliberately causes his death. This makes that last sentence, an oft-repeated phrase of Poirot’s, so chillingly ironic. Listen to the story via this audiobook to hear the full, ruthless shock of the moment come through.

4.    The Murder on the Links

‘It’s the Prince’s turn to interrupt,’ I interpolated. ‘Do you know what he said?’

‘No?’

‘”Hell!” said the Prince– and kissed her!’

And I suited the action to the word.

Hastings puts in a brilliant comment (it has to happen sometimes, right?) and ties up the romantic ending to this fabulous tale with a neat reference to Chapter 1 and his first meeting with Cinderella. What a pleasure this story is to read…

5.    “The Mouse Walks In” (Chapter 13 of The Big Four)

I turned my head aside. Poirot put his hand on my shoulder. There was something in his voice that I had never heard there before.

‘You like not that I should embrace you or display the emotion, I know well. I will be very British. I will say nothing– but nothing at all. Only this– that in this last adventure of ours, the honours are all with you, and happy is the man who has such a friend as I have!’

Speaking of Hastings doing something amazing, he has here just put his own life and (so he thinks) the life of his wife in deadly peril to save his friend. What follows, at the end of the chapter, is one of the most moving exchanges between Poirot and Hastings to be found anywhere.

6.    Cards on the Table

Despard said cheerfully:

‘Let’s stab him, Rhoda, and see if his ghost can come back and find out who did it.’

For the sheer impudence and audacity of the comment. Cent tonnerres!

7.    Three Act Tragedy

‘My goodness,’ he cried, ‘I’ve only just realized it. That rascal, with his poisoned cocktail! Anyone might have drunk it. It might have been me.’

‘There is an even more terrible possibility that you have not considered,’ said Poirot.

‘Eh?’

‘It might have been ME,’ said Hercule Poirot.

This is a particularly brilliant ending because it comes across as comic OR poignant. The first instinct, perhaps, is to laugh at Poirot’s incorrigible vanity– that his death would be so much more tragic than that of an ordinary person. But then immediately one is reminded that, strictly speaking, he’s right, insofar as it’s true that if he’d been killed, the murders would not have been solved and the evil bigamist would have succeeded in his plan. The serious reality of that fact is compounded by Poirot’s own realization that his friend Cartwright was willing to let him die in such a pointless way just for the sake of testing out a future murder. All of the complexity and poignancy this entails is captured in full by Suchet’s great performance of that moment. Martin Shaw does a superb job as Cartwright, as well– everyone has tears in their eyes by the end. Go watch it!

8.    Five Little Pigs 

‘I died…’

In the hall she passed two young people whose life together was just beginning.

The chauffeur held open the door of the car. Lady Dittisham got in and the chauffeur wrapped the fur rug round her knees.

When the murderer is revealed, she gives a little monologue that is a wonder of crime fiction character psychology. It underscores an observation that Poirot makes near the very end of Curtain: the worst part of murder is the effect it has on the murderer. The ending is subtle and stark, and seems to reinforce the futility of a life of luxury when obtained at the expense of a murderer’s own sanity and happiness. Zowie. I admit I prefer it to the melodramatic conclusion that the television adaptation attempts.

9.    The Mystery of the Blue Train

‘Yes– yes, it is true. You are young, younger than you yourself know. Trust the train, Mademoiselle, for it is le bon Dieu who drives it.’

The whistle of the engine came again.

‘Trust the train, Mademoiselle,’ murmured Poirot again. ‘And trust Hercule Poirot– He knows.’

Just a lovely, elegant conclusion. Eminently quotable; as Christie might have said, a “typical exit line.”

10.    “The Wasp’s Nest”

‘Listen, mon ami, you are a dying man; you have lost the girl you loved, but there is one thing that you are not; you are not a murderer. Tell me now: are you glad or sorry that I came?’

There was a moment’s pause and Harrison drew himself up. There was a new dignity in his face– the look of a man who has conquered his own baser self. He stretched out his hand across the table.

‘Thank goodness you came,’ he cried. ‘Oh, thank goodness you came.’

Poirot has just saved his dying friend from becoming a murderer. A wonderfully satisfying conclusion to one of Christie’s cleverest little tales.

11.    “The Apples of the Hesperides”

Hercule Poirot said gently:

‘He needs your prayers.’

‘Is he then an unhappy man?’

Poirot said:

‘So unhappy that he has forgotten what happiness means. So unhappy that he does not know he is unhappy.’

The nun said softly:

‘Ah, a rich man…’

Hercule Poirot said nothing– for he knew that there was nothing to say…

From the stories comprising The Labours of Hercules comes this deep conversation with a nun about Poirot’s most recent client. More splendid character psychology from Christie.

12.    Murder on the Orient Express

‘Then,’ said Poirot, ‘having placed my solution before you, I have the honour to retire from the case…’

After a slick and streamlined investigation, the book builds to a crescendo with Poirot’s two solutions to the mystery, followed by Linda Arden’s impassioned plea, and draws to a close with Poirot’s calm and matter-of-fact pronouncement. The only hint we have of a kind of lack of closure is in those trailing elipses. Are the passengers surprised by Poirot’s reaction? What is passing through Poirot’s mind? I admit candidly that I have never seen an adaptation that completely satisfies me as far as the script’s relation to the text is concerned. The book comes across as an extremely difficult story to adapt in general, but I would really love, somehow, to see a performance in which the last few pages of the book are read pretty much exactly as written.

Book review! Little Grey Cells: The Quotable Poirot

Today I received a new book in the mail– that little book of quotable Poirot that we’ve been hearing so much about. It’s a long-overdue book, really, seeing as Poirot is so eminently quotable, but good things are worth waiting for.

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The book gets an A+ for aesthetics, which is so important in a gift- or coffee table- style book. It is a little thing of beauty, with a light gray, faux-cloth hardcover (slightly textured) and an artful line border on both sides that combine to give it a beautiful, vintage library look. The endpapers are red with a moustache motif that is not quite argyle, but does involve repeating squares in a pattern of connected dots that emphasizes the play on the word “cells”– little building blocks that come together to make a whole. There is a good deal of metallic silver printing on the front and back, and a red ribbon marker, and best of all– that black moustache is flocked! It’s textured and fuzzy. Even the tiny moustache on the binding is flocked! You’ll start stroking the blasted thing like you’re Poirot himself, until you realize how awkward and creepy this makes you, and you stop. But you can’t stop…

Whoever was in charge of design is a genius. It’s an elegant little piece, not cheap, but perfectly styled, and its content is tidy, efficiently arranged, and devoid of clutter. If Poirot were a book, he would actually be this book.

Moving on to content…

There is a foreword and afterword by Christie concerning her character that provide well-conceived bookends for the Poirot quotes, so that the content is entirely Christie. There are also thorough and accurate lists of references before and after, subdivided into categories: books, short stories, and miscellaneous sources in which stories were featured, such as to make Miss Lemon herself weep for joy. I particularly appreciated the inclusion and identified locations of alternate versions of the same basic short stories.

The quotes themselves are laid out in 12 different categories. It’s not a thoroughly exhaustive collection but is meant to represent some of the best, and you’re very likely to find your favorite Poirot quote within. If brevity weren’t as much of a concern, the categories could probably have been expanded to include more subject-specific content (e.g. The Moustache, etc). There were also categories in which I positively expected to find a certain quote, but didn’t: in Les Femmes, for example, I was anticipating the “Bonne mère, très femme” from “Western Star” as one of those iconic summaries of Poirot’s views of femininity, or perhaps something from “The Capture of Cerberus” on women who do (or don’t) make themselves up properly in his estimation.

There are also a couple of quotes that seemed to sit a little awkwardly in their categories. In Romance, for example, we have a statement made to Hastings from “The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan”: “You have the good heart to think of an old man. And the good heart, it is in the end worth all the little grey cells.”  A great quote, but only wildly taken out of context could these lines be construed as “romance,” and it does, in fact, serve as a humorous little dig at Hastings’ lack of mental celerity. And I have no idea why the fun quote about the dentist is in the Truth and Lies section. A few little moments like that are noticeable.

This is fairly small criticism, though. The book is lovely and a worthwhile investment for the Christie fan. Next request: The expanded and illustrated version!  😀

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